China's top judge urged the nation's courts to avoid passing death sentences -- which some say take 10,000 lives a year -- except in an "extremely small" number of cases, state media reported yesterday.
"In cases where the judge has legal leeway to decide whether to order death, he should always choose not to do so," said Xiao Yang (
Xiao told judges at a national conference this week to tread carefully "as if walking on thin ice" when considering death sentences, it said.
His remarks follow the national legislature's decision last week to require that all lower-court capital sentences be reviewed by Xiao's Supreme People's Court.
The change was aimed at cutting down miscarriages of justice and was applauded by legal experts overseas.
In recent years, Chinese media have exposed a slew of cases in which lower courts ordered the executions of innocent people.
The recent moves reflect a growing awareness in China's government that it kills far too many people each year, said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.
This was the result not only of international political pressure but also pressure within China from lawyers, judges and other legal experts bothered by the high numbers, he said.
But he called the moves mere "tinkering" and said meaningful judicial reform remained far off.
"It's hard to say it's a step forward. Less people will be killed, and that's a good thing. But it's still mainly a political move," he said.
But Xiao's call to limit use of the penalty also may have a practical basis, as a recent law change could bring thousands of capital punishment cases before the high court each year for review.
The supreme court is responding to the change, which takes effect on Jan. 1, by expanding criminal tribunals and a death penalty review team, Xinhua said.
China's justice system is believed to put more people to death each year than the rest of the world combined.
The exact number of executions is a state secret, but Chinese academics have publicly estimated that the state puts up to 10,000 people to death every year.
However, Xiao rejected calls by human rights groups and legal experts for the abolishment of the death penalty, Xinhua said.
"The conditions are not yet ripe for China to ban the death penalty. It is still a necessary means to ensure the safety of the state and protect the people," Xiao was quoted as saying.
The death penalty is supposed to be reserved for crimes that "seriously endanger public security and social order," including homicide, rape, robbery and bombings, Xinhua has said.
Executions in China are carried out with a bullet to the back of the head, although some local governments have been experimenting with lethal injection.