Public irked over officials using get-out-of-jail cards

By Wang Jingqiong (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-05-17 07:49
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Beijing - Officials found guilty of crimes have their sentences reduced much more frequently than other convicts, a situation that is not sitting well with the public.

About 20 to 30 percent of prisoners get a reduction in their penalties, while for convicted officials that number is 70 percent, Xinhua News Agency reported.

"I think corruption is a very severe crime, but in recent years most of the officials, even those who took huge bribes, are sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve," said Chen Lu, a 27-year-old engineer.

Under Chinese law, a death sentence with a two-year reprieve can be reduced to life in prison if the convict doesn't commit another crime in those two years.

The life sentence can then be further reduced to no less than 12 years for good behavior or contributing to society.

"The difference between the death penalty and 12 years in jail is too big a gap and I don't think it's fair to put someone in prison for 10 years if he deserves the death penalty," Chen said.

An official taking bribes of more than 100,000 yuan ($15,000) can be sentenced to death, according to the Criminal Law. But in practice, many of them, especially high-level officials, are sentenced to death with a reprieve.

According to Xinhua, more than 100 vice-minister-level officials were convicted between 1999 and 2009. Eight were executed.

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Among the rest, 11 percent were sentenced to death with a reprieve, 8 percent with life imprisonment, 21 percent with more than 10 years' imprisonment, and 15 percent with imprisonment of 10 years or less.

In the most recent case, Xu Zongheng, the former mayor of Shenzhen in Guangdong province, was sentenced to death with a reprieve, arousing public suspicion over a pattern of high-level officials getting reduced penalties.

"It is not rare that high profile cases like Xu have failed to meet the expectations of people calling for the death penalty. However, I don't see that more use of capital punishment could be an effective way to eradicate corruption," Zhao Bingzhi, dean of Law School at Beijing Normal University, told China Daily.

Zhao said the death penalty for corruption is already very harsh compared with many other countries, and in the long run the death sentence for corruption should be canceled.

"However, considering the fury the general public feels about corruption, and how severe corruption is in our country, now is not the right time to cancel it," Zhao said.

Other experts, agreeing that the law should be strictly implemented, believe the key is how to make penalty reductions for officials more transparent and more convincing to the public.

Chen Guangzhong, a law professor at China University of Political Science and Law, said more supervision should be added to the process of reducing penalties for convicted officials.

"For example, the court should hold a hearing before approving a reduction, and the hearing should include the prosecuting authorities, instead of just the court staff," Chen said.