China makes major shift on executions

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BEIJING - China, believed to carry out more court-ordered executions than all other nations combined, took a step forward in improving human rights Tuesday by enacting legislation that requires approval from the country's highest court before putting anyone to death.
Human rights activists expressed hope the country will reduce its use of the ultimate penalty. The amendment to China's capital punishment law follows reports of executions of wrongly convicted people and criticism that lower courts have arbitrarily imposed the death sentence.
China is thought to put to execute hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people each year for crimes ranging from murder to such nonviolent offenses as tax evasion. Amnesty International says China executed at least 1,770 people in 2005, but the true number is thought to be many times higher.
In a statement Tuesday, the London-based rights group cited a senior member of China's national legislature as saying some 10,000 people are executed each year. By Amnesty's figures of known executions, China was responsible for more than 80 percent of the 2,148 people executed last year around the world, including 60 in the United States.
"Clearly the changes are going in the right direction," Mark Allison, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty, said of the new legislation, which takes effect Jan. 1. "But we're still calling for China to go further - to abolish the death penalty."
China's official Xinhua News Agency hailed the amendment as "the most important reform of capital punishment in China in more than two decades."
The change "deprives the provincial people's courts of the final say on issuing death sentences," the agency said. "Death penalties handed out by provincial courts must be reviewed and ratified by the Supreme People's Court."
The change adopted by the legislature Tuesday enshrines last year's announcement by the Supreme People's Court that it would start reviewing all death sentences, ending a 23-year-old practice of giving the final review to provincial courts.
"It's great news. This is a big step forward for China's legal system and human rights," said Li Heping, a prominent activist lawyer.
"It's going to have a psychological effect on local judges when they are making decisions because they are going to be afraid that if they approve capital punishment, the supreme court will overrule them," Li said.
Human Rights Watch said the reforms don't go far enough, and urged China to be more open with information about its use of the death penalty.
"Without releasing basic public information such as the overall number of executions, the type of crime that led to the sentence, and basic data about the executed, meaningful penal reform still has not been achieved," the international rights group's Asia director, Sophie Richardson, said.
Jerome Cohen, an American expert on Chinese law, called the new law "encouraging and significant" but said the next challenge will be enforcing the change.
"The court has been working hard to recruit a sufficient number of judges. It's proving to be slow going," Cohen said. "That itself tells you what a huge burden it is to adequately review the large number of death sentences."
Details about criteria for reviewing death sentences, as well as the standards and procedures, have to be worked out, he said.
In June, Xinhua said 30 judges from lower-level courts had been selected as the first trainees for death penalty tribunals. It said they will get three months of training and be on probation for a year before receiving a final appointment.
The court was also considering lawyers and law school teachers for the tribunals, Xinhua said.
Complaints have been common that lower-level courts mishandle death penalty cases.
Last year, a woman believed murdered in the 1980s in the central province of Hunan reappeared, 16 years after the man convicted of killing her was executed.
At the time of the execution, the court reportedly said the defendant confessed. Chinese police often are accused of torturing suspects into making confessions.
The case is one of a number of high-profile cases that state media has publicized in recent years highlighting the flaws of an aggressive policy of judicial executions. Death penalty lawyers and legal scholars in China have also begun discussing more openly the need for China to establish clearer procedures for the death penalty.
There has not been any debate, however, about abolishing capital punishment.
T. Kumar, the advocacy director for Asia for Amnesty International USA, said the shift came from a sense in the Chinese state media and academic community that the current system was unfair.
"There was some discussion that innocent people were being killed," he said. "They want to bring the death penalty issue under control. They were killing too many people."
Xiao Yang, the high court's president, said the new legislation is "an important procedural step to prevent wrongful convictions," according to Xinhua. "It will also give the defendants in death sentence cases one more chance to have their opinions heard."
The high court itself has been involved in controversial death penalty decisions.
In December 2003, a gang boss who said he was tortured into confessing to corruption charges was executed in the northeastern city of Shenyang in an anti-graft crackdown.
A provincial court had issued a reprieve, citing the possibility the torture claims might be true, but the Supreme People's Court overruled that decision and ordered his immediate execution.
Cohen said he hoped the amendment means that "ultimately there will be a reduction in the number of people executed - and certainly the number of people executed wrongly."
However, Amnesty noted in its statement that there is a danger the new legislation "could further entrench the death penalty system in China."