Wednesday, 1 November 2006

China: Supreme Court review from January

All death sentences handed down in China will be reviewed by the Supreme People's Court from 1 January 2007, a move senior judges have claimed will help prevent wrongful convictions.

A standing committee of the National People's Congress, the country's top legislative body, yesterday amended the law on the country's courts, requiring all death penalties handed down by provincial courts to be reviewed by the SPC.

China is the world's leader in executions, with an estimated toll of between 8,000 and 10,000 executions each year, although the true figure is a closely guarded 'state secret'.

Chinese government newsagency Xinhua said yesterday's amendments were "believed to be the most important reform on capital punishment in China in more than 20 years".

The China Daily newspaper described the move as "a major step to safeguard human rights".

Appeal and review
The amendment to the Organic Law on the People's Courts separates an appeal against a conviction from the new process reviewing the appropriateness of the sentence.

SPC president Xiao Yang said a convicted person would appeal the verdict to provincial courts, but the SPC would be required to review and ratify all death sentences handed out.

According to Xinhua, Xiao described the change as "an important procedural step to prevent wrongful convictions".

"It will also give the defendants in death sentence cases one more chance to have their opinions heard," Xiao said.

China Daily reported before the standing committee vote that the proposed review would apply only to death sentences handed down in provincial courts.

The report said the revision submitted to the committee stated: "Cases in which the death sentence has been issued should be submitted to the Supreme People's Court for approval except in those cases in which the judgments were issued by the Supreme People's Court itself."

After increasing criticism
The amendments introducing SPC review of capital cases come after intense – and rare – public criticism of miscarriages of justice in China's court system in recent years.

Official media have permitted at times angry discussion of high-profile murder cases, where police had used torture to secure confessions but the 'murder victim' appeared alive after their alleged killer had been executed.

Human rights organisations have long criticised provincial courts of political interference, corruption and poorly trained judges.

Even official newsagency Xinhua acknowledged yesterday that "the practice of provincial courts handling both death sentence appeals and conducting final reviews began to encounter increasing criticism in recent years for causing miscarriages of justice".

"Since 2005, China's media have exposed a series of errors in death sentence cases and criticized courts for lack of caution in meting out capital punishment," Xinhua said.

BBC NEWS said Jerome Cohen, a US expert on China's legal system, called the move to Supreme Court review a "step in the right direction", which he said showed that senior members of the judiciary were increasingly concerned by the use of the death penalty.

He said the legal system required further fundamental reform of death penalty legislation to change the way capital cases were tried and appealed.

Courts preparing
China's courts have taken a number of steps this year that the government has claimed would reform the handling of capital cases.

Through 2006 the SPC has been preparing for the introduction of the review process, establishing three new criminal tribunals and recruiting and training new judges.

In February 2006, Xiao Yang announced that after July all appeals against death sentences would be heard in open court, replacing the previous practice of closed-door judicial review of capital cases.

Related stories:
Political questions over China's new appeal judges -- 02 Jul 2006
China to video death penalty appeals -- 28 May 2006
China: Death penalty cases will soon be reviewed -- 09 Apr 2006
China to retain death penalty, with reforms -- 13 Mar 2006
Open courts to hear China’s death row appeals -- 26 Feb 2006
China acknowledges death penalty abolition trend -- 13 Mar 2006
China's world record - 8000 dead? -- 28 Feb 2006

, law reform,

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