China - China mulls death penalty reform

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China - China mulls death penalty reform

Post  Jennie on Tue Jun 17, 2008 11:57 pm

When China's newly appointed top judge suggested recently that death penalties meted out in the country should adhere to popular will, many were outraged.

From those who shuddered recalling the pandemonium of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when gangs of teenagers administered "people's will" by beating up their teachers on the streets to those who saw rows of corrupt officials being lined up and shot on the strength of prevailing public opinion, everybody had a word to say against judge Wang Shengjun's suggestion.

"China's legal system is still immature and courts mustn't blindly cater to popular will by becoming its rubber stamps," said Zhang.

Jianwei, legal expert at Qinghua University in Beijing. "We should remember the lessons of the Cultural Revolution. All those public executions carried out by the masses made the calamity even worse. We have plenty of historical evidence to believe that public will tends to favor harsher punishments."

Lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said China was engaged in an intense battle against corruption and if public opinion was taken as basis for judging corrupt officials there would be plenty of death sentences.

"The irony is that in China public opinion is almost never a factor in trying corruption cases," he says. "More often than not corrupt officials are given lenient sentences in belief of their repentance, while other criminal cases where public opinion is fiercely divided are resolved with the death penalty."

By suggesting that popular will should be a factor in carrying out death sentences, top judge Wang Shengjun had only voiced the desire of certain legal officials and experts to reform China's much criticized death penalty system. But the uproar that ensued sheds light on the hurdles the reform movement needs to overcome.

Court officials and legal experts contend that the Chinese people commonly believe in retribution as "an eye for an eye and a life for a life".

"I believe the principal of adherence to the popular will raised by the top judge refers only to this public belief," suggests legal researcher Xie Pengcheng. "Sometimes nothing but the death penalty can placate people's anger."

Rights groups say China executes more people annually than the rest of the world combined. The country's penal system has been denounced for putting people to death summarily, meting out wrongful sentences and keeping the numbers of executed secret.

Since last year though, China has taken several strides forward toward reform. In January, the Supreme Court took back its power of final approval on death penalties. This power was relinquished to provincial high courts in a crime-fighting campaign in the 1980s.

The change has led to a decline in the numbers of people executed, according to China's legal authorities. The Supreme Court rejected 15% of all death sentences handed down by lower courts in 2007 due to a lack of evidence, injustices and illegal court procedures.

Death sentences were handed down only for an "extremely small number of extremely serious and extremely vile criminals posing a grievous threat to society", former top judge Xiao Yang said in his report to the annual session of the National People's Congress in March. Xiao Yang didn't give a number of the people executed. The exact number of convicts put to death is a state secret. The Dui Hua Foundation - a US-based advocacy group that researches Chinese prisons - has documented about 6,000 executions in 2007, a 25% to 30% drop from the year before.

Amnesty International believes China remains the world's most prolific executioner, sentencing to death and executing more people than other countries that practice the death penalty. But China has repeatedly defended its use of the ultimate punishment, citing broad popular support for it.

"The conditions are not right in China to abolish the death penalty, and it would not be supported by the majority of the people," Foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in her most recent remarks on death penalty reform. "But we strictly control it and use it cautiously to ensure that it is used in only a small minority of the most serious cases."

Beijing is pushing for the replacement of gunshot executions with lethal injection as the next step in its death penalty reform. Currently half of the country's 404 intermediate people's courts use lethal injections. "It is considered more humane and will eventually be used in all intermediate people's courts," Jiang Xingchang, vice president of the Supreme People's Court (SPC) was quoted as saying in March.

To help speed the reform process, the SPC has said it will begin providing the lethal cocktail used in the injection to local courts for free. In the past, the toxic mixture was prepared in Beijing and local court officials were required to travel to the capital to receive it. This practice has proved too costly for many of the provinces, leading to delays in the introduction of lethal injection nationwide.

But popular opinion may prove an obstacle to the introduction of the injection as well. The new method of executions has been decried in the press as the "last privilege of corrupt officials", with reports suggesting wealth and connections had been used to secure some convicts a less painful death.

(source: Asia Times)

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