China has pledged to cut the number of people it executes as the Supreme Court initiated reforms returning the review of death sentences to China's top court, state press said yesterday.
"Although China still has the death penalty to punish severe criminals, we will try to execute less people to avoid any unjust cases," Chief Justice Xiao Yang (
He made the comment when revealing details of a reform plan that would require a special high court tribunal to review death sentences handed out at lower levels, Xinhua news agency said.
Xiao did not say when the new plan would be implemented.
According to Amnesty International, China executes more criminals annually than the rest of the world combined.
China refuses to reveal precise figures, but academics believe that up to 10,000 people are put to death every year.
China's apparent softening of its position comes after a series of unjust executions came to light this year that further exposed the widespread use of police brutality and the extraction of confessions through torture.
According to Chinese law, the high court should review all death penalties, but in the 1980s, in order to implement a "strike hard" campaign against crime, the high court allowed the top provincial courts to review execution cases.
Xiao said the new reforms would return the final review of the cases to the Supreme Court.
Although provincial courts are required to review death sentences in their regions, this is rarely done in a courtroom situation.
Instead, it is often only a review of court documents surrounding the original verdict, rights groups say.
According to Xiao, in 2003 the Supreme Court rejected 7.2 percent of the death sentences brought before it for review, while commuting 22 percent to life in prison.
During the same period, provincial high courts disallowed 4.4 percent of the death-sentence verdicts for lack of sufficient evidence and revised 38 percent to lesser punishments, he said.
According to Amnesty, around 68 crimes including non-violent offences such as tax fraud, embezzling state property and accepting bribes are punishable by death in China.
In March, Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) said China "cannot" abolish the death penalty due to "national conditions," but outlined the need for the Supreme Court to better review cases involving capital punishment.
The use of the death penalty in China is so routine that the state has built special mobile execution vans where lethal injections can be administered immediately after the final verdict is read.
China has also been accused of taking body parts from executed criminals and selling them on organ donor markets.