Tuesday, 31 July 2007

China: Courts claim fewer executions

China's official media have reported a reduction in executions this year -- but once again the government refused to release meaningful statistics about the use of the death penalty.

China Daily reported that figures from Beijing No 1 and No 2 intermediate people's courts showed a 10 per cent drop in the first five months of this year compared with the same period last year.

Court spokesperson Ni Shouming said the situation was similar across the country, but he "declined to give details".

The newspaper said in an editorial that the "remarkable drop" showed the return to Supreme Court review had achieved its aim "to rein in irresponsible use of capital punishment" by local courts.

China Daily said the change came "after the Supreme People's Court recovered the right to review and approve all death sentences decided by local courts in the country".

From 1 January 2007, all death sentences handed down by provincial courts must be reviewed by the Supreme People's Court.

Official statistics quoted in the China Daily report showed nearly 890,000 people were convicted by all levels of courts across China, with nearly 154,000 receiving sentences longer than five years.

But these figures were useless for assessing the use of the death penalty, since they included custodial sentences over five years, life terms and executions.

'Trend towards leniency'
Criminal law expert Chen Weidong, from Renmin University of China, predicted death sentences would drop by 20 per cent over this year.

"Leniency and more judicious use of capital punishment is the trend of the time, a concept in line with international practice," he said.

Chen Zexian, deputy director of the Institute of Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told China Daily that China would ultimately abolish the death penalty, but "it has to start from strict limits on the use of death penalties".

"It takes a long time for society to accept the abolition of the death penalty," he said.

China Daily's editorial said the implementation of a new approach to criminal law incorporated "both leniency and severity - with the accent on leniency".

This was "a break from China's traditional emphasis on harshness in law enforcement".

"The general appeal for leniency in criminal justice and, more specifically, the call for prudent use of the death sentence are both indications of civilized law enforcement," the newspaper said.

"But a more direct cause for the decline in the number of death sentences in the past months could well be the new requirement that all such verdicts be scrutinized by the Supreme Court."

'Political interference remains'
Human Rights Watch said while there appeared to be a drop in executions in China, the country still executed between 7,000 and 15,000 people a year.

Nicholas Becquelin, a China researcher with the organisation, said police and political interference was still common in the courts.

He told VOA News that recent efforts to cut the number of executions were also motivated by a desire to clean up the country's image before the 2008 Olympics.

"The number of death penalty [cases] and the sort of callousness in which the Chinese government executes people is regularly one of the top black spots on China's image in the international community," he said.

"And, with the Olympic Games coming closer and closer, this is definitely something that the Chinese authorities want to be seen as acting over."

Related stories:
China call for cautious death penalty - again -- 8 April, 2007
China: Judges try to limit death penalty -- 14 November, 2006
China reforms good, but not enough -- 8 November, 2006
China: Supreme Court review from January -- 1 November, 2006
Political questions over China's new appeal judges -- 2 July, 2006
China to video death penalty appeals -- 28 May 2006
China to retain death penalty, with reforms -- 13 March 2006

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