China took a modest step to broaden human rights Tuesday when it enacted legislation that requires the country’s highest court to approve death penalties before they are carried out.
Legal experts estimate that the Supreme People’s Court reviews will cut the number of executions by 30% by bringing some consistency to the system.
Poorly trained provincial judges have often been quick to apply the death penalty with limited understanding of the law or legal process.
In practice, the high court started reviewing most execution cases several months ago, and Tuesday’s move was expected. But enshrining the process into law imposes more discipline on the system and protects against backsliding, legal scholars said.
International human rights groups say the change is welcome but that reform needs to go much further.
Executions are the last step in a legal system in which lawyers are attacked and disbarred for mounting vigorous defenses, where torture violations have been amply documented, where any legal decision is subject to political review and where there is little tradition of open debate. Even the number of executions China carries out annually is a state secret.
China put to death at least 1,770 people in 2005, according to Amnesty International, which calculated the figure based on Chinese media reports. But many experts believe that the actual number might be as high as 10,000 a year.
Even limiting the scope to known executions, China carried out more than 80% of the 2,148 executions worldwide last year. (There were 60 in the U.S.)
The government has also been embarrassed by a series of wrongful death penalty cases, including that of a man executed for killing his wife, who showed up a few years later. That led to a government “kill fewer, kill carefully” campaign.
The new law “has great significance in reducing the number of death penalty cases and wrong death penalty cases,” said Chen Xingliang, vice director of the Law School of Peking University. “It’s also significant in terms of the consistency of laws nationwide.”
It does not herald a major reform of the legal system, however.
In fact, China’s Supreme People’s Court had review authority until the early 1980s, when calls for speedy justice decentralized the authority. And relative to other human rights issues pressed by overseas critics, this change had significant support within the Chinese legal establishment.
Other problems in China’s legal system remain. There are no juries, police have enormous latitude, and forensics or other independent experts are rarely used. For decades, whether a suspect lived or died often depended on timing, location and the political winds.
Neighboring provinces sometimes handed down dramatically different sentences for the same crime, and those caught for relatively minor offenses during “strike hard” anti-crime campaigns have been far more likely to face execution.
“The death penalty and executions come at the end of a system that is flawed and dysfunctional,” said Sharon Hom, New York-based director of Human Rights in China. “When you get to the end of the food chain, it’s pretty late in the game.” *
Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.