China will begin allowing death penalty cases to be heard in open court this year, its top judge said yesterday, in an admission of flaws as he nevertheless vowed to maintain a tough stance against crime.
Attempting to address widespread public concern over serious miscarriages of justice and lack of transparency in the death penalty system, Xiao Yang (肖揚), president of the Supreme People's Court, said open trials would be allowed in all appeal hearings beginning the second half of this year.
"As of July 1, 2006, all the second-instance trials of death sentence cases shall be heard in open court," Xiao said in his annual report to the National People's Congress.
The country's highest court would also take steps this year to take back the power to review death sentences from provincial courts, he said.
Due to high workload, the Supreme Court had previously allowed provincial courts to make the final ruling.
The move appears to be a response to many Chinese media reports in recent years which exposed wrongful death penalty sentences, sparking public debate, especially among academics who began lobbying for change.
China, which executes more people each year than the rest of the world combined, also faced criticism for allowing executed prisoners' organs to be harvested for transplants.
Xiao, however, indicated there would be no relaxation in China's tough stance against crime, especially those considered a threat to political rule and social order.
In a sign that the government considers challenges to its authority as the biggest threat, Xiao listed attempts to undermine government rule and separatism as the top priority for law enforcement this year.
"In 2006, our number one task is to persist in the Strike Hard campaign, strictly punish crimes that subvert state power and try to split the country," Xiao said, adding that violent crimes such as murder and robbery, as well as drug trafficking would also be tackled.
The years-long nationwide "Strike Hard" campaign against crime is blamed by human-rights groups for increasing the number of executions.
Figures revealed by Xiao last year, however, indicated crime was still rising.
Last year, courts handled 683,997 criminal cases and sentenced 844,717 people, an increase of 6.17 percent and 10 percent respectively from 2004, Xiao said.
Of 321,395 sentenced for serious crimes, 131,869 received penalties ranging from five years' imprisonment to the death penalty, Xiao said, without revealing the number sentenced to death, which is considered state secret in China.
Xiao did not release figures on how many were convicted of subversion -- a broadly defined term China uses to put behind bars many Internet activists, Tibetan rights advocates and dissidents denouncing government wrongdoings in the past year.
Addressing strong public dissatisfaction with law enforcement and courts, which are widely accused of being corrupt and incompetent, Xiao and Jia Chunwang (賈春旺), head of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, both admitted flaws in their work.
Court officials based their rulings on who they had good relations with and the bribes they accepted, while prosecutors lacked the competence and impartiality to adequately supervise police work, they said.