Friday, June 27, 2008

Welcome Reduction in Use of Capital Punishment in China

According to a report in Friday's China Daily, in the first half of 2008, China's Supreme People's Court (SPC) overturned about 15 percent of the death sentences sent by provincial courts for final review. This news follows another report last month estimating that roughly 30 percent fewer death sentences were handed down in 2007 compared to the previous year.

Both of these revelations illustrate the impact of one of the most important reforms to take place in China's criminal justice system in recent years: the restoration on January 1, 2007, of the SPC's authority of final review over all death sentences in China.

Chinese legal officials, especially former SPC President Xiao Yang, deserve considerable credit for seeing this important reform to fruition. Facing serious practical challenges in guaranteeing that final reviews of capital cases are carried out in a consistent, timely fashion, SPC judges nevertheless have clearly made a priority of ensuring that the most serious punishment possible is only handed down when warranted by law, evidence, and the facts of the case.

Many Chinese legal experts believe that China should end—not just curb—its use of execution. Officially, the SPC appears to share this aspiration, but warns that the time is not yet right because of the deep-seated demand for retributive justice that reportedly still exists in Chinese society. But even if now is not the time for abolition, there are additional steps that China can—and should—take to further reduce its use of capital punishment.

China should increase the transparency of its system of capital punishment by releasing detailed statistics. China executes more people per year than the rest of the world combined. Dui Hua estimates that around 5,000 people were executed in China in 2007. We can make this statement based on a combination of published and anecdotal evidence despite the fact that the Chinese government closely guards its statistics on capital punishment on the grounds of "state secrecy." As the speakers at a recent press conference held in Hong Kong by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty persuasively argued earlier this month, the attitude of the Chinese public about the necessity of retaining capital punishment might soften somewhat if more Chinese could know precisely how many people are executed on their behalf annually.

China should place stricter limits on the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty. China's criminal code allows criminals to be executed for more than 50 different crimes, many of which do not involve violence of any kind. China's use of capital punishment for "extremely serious or heinous crimes that lead to grave social consequences" is overly broad, including serious, but nonviolent crimes such as drug trafficking, official corruption, and disclosing state secrets abroad. If China is serious about moving towards abolition, it should remove these nonviolent crimes from the scope of application.

China should increase use of "suspended death sentences." Chinese law already provides for a punishment in which the death semtence is suspended for two years. After the two-year period expires, the case is reviewed by the court and, if the prisoner is not found to have committed any crimes during the intervening two years, the sentence is commuted to life imprisonment. As part of the effort to guide Chinese public opinion away from the expectation of death for serious crimes, Chinese courts should expand their use of this unique form of punishment.

To be sure, the substantial drop in the number of death sentences carried out in China is welcome news whose significance for preserving the dignity of human life should not be overlooked. Building on this important accomplishment to improve China's human rights situation further will require more bold, decisive actions and additional legislative and institutional reforms.

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