It’s good news for those of you who stand accused of one of the nearly 70 offenses that are punishable by death in China. Under legislation enacted on Tuesday, as of January 1, all death sentences handed out by provincial courts must be reviewed and ratified by China’s Supreme People’s Court. This reverses a 1983 law which gave such powers to the provincial courts in an effort to crack down on rising crime and corruption that occurred early under the reforms implemented under Deng Xiaoping. However, such liberal use of the death penalty in the world’s most populous country and in a poor legal environment led predictably to large numbers of death sentences, many of them carried out on innocent people. Last year, a woman in Hunan reappeared 16 years after her accused killer had been executed for her murder.
Until fairly recently, on National Day and the New Year, public executions were televised and carried out en mass in public stadiums, with as many as 100 prisoners being executed in a single day. According to the Associated Press, last year China was responsible for 80 percent of the world’s recorded executions, or approximately 1,770 of 2,148. However, citing a senior member of China’s national legislature, Amnesty International claims that the real figure is closer to 10,000.
The New York Times writes:
”It’s great news. This is a big step forward for China’s legal system and human rights,” said Li Heping, a prominent activist lawyer.
”It’s going to have a psychological effect on local judges when they are making decisions because they are going to be afraid that if they approve capital punishment, the supreme court will overrule them,” Li said.
Human Rights Watch said the reforms don’t go far enough, and urged China to be more open with information about its use of the death penalty.
”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,” the international rights group’s Asia director, Sophie Richardson, said.
Jerome Cohen, an American expert on Chinese law, called the new law ”encouraging and significant” but said the next challenge will be enforcing the change.
”The court has been working hard to recruit a sufficient number of judges. It’s proving to be slow going,” Cohen said. ”That itself tells you what a huge burden it is to adequately review the large number of death sentences.”
Details about criteria for reviewing death sentences, as well as the standards and procedures, have to be worked out, he said
Further on, they write:
T. Kumar, the advocacy director for Asia for Amnesty International USA, said the shift came from a sense in the Chinese state media and academic community that the current system was unfair.
There was some discussion that innocent people were being killed,” he said. ”They want to bring the death penalty issue under control. They were killing too many people.”
Xiao Yang, the high court’s president, said the new legislation is ”an important procedural step to prevent wrongful convictions,” according to Xinhua. ”It will also give the defendants in death sentence cases one more chance to have their opinions heard.”
Obviously, this is an unquestionably positive move on the part of the Chinese government, and it is an important step in amending its draconian penal system and giving those accused of capital crimes a greater possibility of receiving a fair trial. Clearly, this will be broadly received as an encouraging move towards greater human rights in China and somewhat help to dispel the severely negative perception of China’s use of capital punishment.
Taking a broader view, the death penalty reforms will also help the Chinese in lifting the European Union’s arms embargo, which has persisted on the basis of China’s poor human rights record since the violent suppression of certain events in 1989. Lifting the embargo is favored by both France and Germany and opposed by the United States. Moreover, the announcement of death penalty reform comes on the same day as China condemned the United States for its planned $16 billion sale of arms to Taiwan. Whether the timing of this is deliberate or purely coincidental, there is an inevitable linkage between these issues.