Wednesday, 8 November 2006

China reforms good, but not enough

Human rights groups have welcomed reforms to the death penalty in China, but say the changes fail to address the unfair trials, secrecy and widespread use that characterise the country's death penalty system.

The Chinese government passed new legislation last week reinstating a single national process of review for all death sentences. From 1 January 2007, the Supreme People's Court will review all death sentences handed down by provincial courts.

Amnesty International (AI) said the changes were "welcome" but people facing the death penalty would still be unlikely to receive fair trials. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the reforms would not be effective if China did not disclose how many people were executed each year.

"This new legislation will possibly help improve the quality of trials for those facing the death penalty in China - and may also reduce the number of executions," said Purna Sen, AI's Asia-Pacific Programme Director.

"But there is a danger that it could also further entrench the death penalty system in China, unless it is accompanied by other measures, including full transparency on the use of the death penalty nationwide and a reduction in the number of crimes punishable by death," Purna Sen said.

Around 68 crimes attract the death penalty in China, including non-violent offences such as tax fraud, embezzling state property and accepting bribes.

Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said: "Unless the government discloses how many people it executes each year, the reform isn't meaningful."

"Hiding the numbers might save the government embarrassment, but this is not acceptable. 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," she said.

Both organisations agreed that the reforms did not go far enough, and would not address the serious human rights violations in the use of the death penalty in China.
AI expressed fears that, even with the new process of review, "those facing the death penalty are unlikely to receive a fair trial in line with international human rights standards".

"Trials in China are generally marked by a lack of prompt access to lawyers, lack of presumption of innocence, political interference in the judiciary and the failure to exclude evidence extracted under torture," AI said.

Sophie Richardson from HRW said: "Having a higher court review death penalty sentences is a good first step, but much more needs to be done."

"The government must also work to ensure that courts are independent and that defendants have adequate legal representation. Otherwise, this reform will signal only very limited progress," she said.

Related story:
China: Supreme Court review from January -- 01 November, 2006

, law reform, , human rights

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