China to restrict death penalty and cut executions

Country's highest court to minimise capital punishment in apparent relaxing of policy by world's most prolific executioner

China will reduce the number of people it executes and impose more suspended death sentences, a senior judicial official has said.

The country is believed to be the world's most prolific executioner, with at least 7,000 sentenced to death and 1,718 executed last year, according to Amnesty International.

Zhang Jun, vice-president of the supreme people's court, said it would tighten restrictions on the use of capital punishment. But he stressed that the country would not abandon the death penalty, saying it was "impossible" to do so under current conditions and that people had strongly supported it for a long time.
"It is an important effort to strictly control the application of the penalty by judicial organs," he said, according to the state newspaper China Daily.
"Judicial departments should use the least number of death sentences possible, and death penalties should not be given to those having a reason for not being executed."
Zhang said the highest court was extremely cautious in imposing the sentence on those who killed relatives or neighbours in disputes. People who pleaded guilty, compensated their victims' relatives, or were pardoned by the latter also tended to receive more lenient punishments.
He said the death penalty should be applied to "an extremely small number" of serious offenders, but offered no figures for current execution rates or reduction targets.
The actual number of executions is a state secret; Amnesty's figures are drawn from recorded cases alone. Several organisations have suggested the true toll runs into several thousand.
The death penalty applies to more than 60 offences in China, including many non-violent and economic crimes.
But "death penalty with reprieve" sentences are becoming more common and are usually commuted to life in prison. This can later be reduced to 20 years or less with good behaviour.
"If there is really a drop in the number of executions and the number of crimes to which the death penalty is applied, this is a move which Amnesty International will welcome," said Si-si Liu, a Hong Kong-based researcher for the human rights group.
"But right now it's really impossible for external observers to verify or double-check what officials have said about reductions in numbers, because the total is a state secret."
She added that Amnesty International was concerned by other remarks from Chinese officials, citing the statement by Li Zhi, Urumqi's Communist party secretary, that violent rioters in Xinjiang would be executed.
"We question how this kind of sentencing decision, which only courts should be eligible to make, can be made by people outside the judicial system," Liu said.
Last year the country's most senior judge said only "extremely vile criminals" were executed in 2007 as a result of "kill fewer, kill carefully" reforms that gave the supreme court the right to overturn capital sentences handed down by lower courts.
The China Daily said the supreme people's court overturned 15% of death sentences handed down in 2007 and 10 percent in 2008.
Independent analysts suggested the policy had caused a drop in executions of as much as 30% year-on-year.
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