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China slowly revising its capital punishment system

BEIJING—Amid publicity over several wrongful executions, China is slowly making headway in revising its system of capital punishment.

One part that isn't changing, however, is the government's insistence on keeping the number of executions per year a state secret.

A new estimate, reached after research among senior academics, puts the number at around 8,000, far more than any other nation, legal scholar Liu Renwen said.

Liu, a critic of the death penalty, said government insistence on keeping execution statistics secret was undermining efforts to reform the judiciary.

"This is very stupid. If you don't know the exact number, how can you give useful suggestions for reform?" asked Liu, a scholar at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a premier national research center.

For decades, China has made fast and frequent use of the death penalty as part of what the government calls "strike hard" campaigns against crime. In rural areas, often on the very day of conviction, judicial authorities exhibit prisoners at rallies, minutes before their executions, and give public servants and students time off to attend.

"I've seen at least 20 cases of executions with my own eyes," said a retired police officer from Henan province in central China, who asked to be identified only by his surname, Li, to prevent reprisals for talking about capital punishment.

He said convicts were bound and gagged and put on a flatbed truck in a public square, where a pronouncement was made. Police later take the condemned prisoners to rural areas, and carry out the executions away from crowds.

"They are told to kneel on the ground," Li said. "Two policemen grab each shoulder of the convict. A third policeman fires at the back of the head from 20 centimeters," about 8 inches, Li said.

China imposes the death penalty for 68 categories of crimes, including homicide and aggravated assault, as well as nonviolent crimes such as smuggling, tax evasion and embezzlement.

Several miscarriages of justice involving the death penalty emerged in news reports last year, sparking an official "kill fewer, kill carefully" campaign and efforts to reform the judicial process.

Under current death penalty-appeal procedures, hearings are closed even to defense attorneys, defendants and their families. Judges read court documents, such as written confessions, then issue rulings. Legal rights advocates note that police in China routinely extract confessions from people they arrest, often through torture and duress, and win extraordinarily high conviction rates in courts.

Supreme People's Court Chief Justice Xiao Yang told legislators this month that of 683,997 criminal cases that China's courts handled last year, judges declared 2,162 defendants innocent, the state Xinhua News Agency reported.

Xiao ruled out abolishing the death penalty and said no decision had been made to halt capital punishment for economic crimes. But he noted that the Supreme People's Court had instituted measures to bring caution to death penalty cases.

Starting in July, all death penalty appeals must be heard in open court, allowing prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys to meet face to face.

Moreover, the Supreme People's Court is taking back final review of all death penalty cases in an effort to curb arbitrary rulings by provincial judges, some of whom never attended law school. To handle the reviews, the high court is adding two criminal tribunals and 300 to 400 more judges. No timetable has been given.

Legal experts say the central review of appeals will reduce the number of executions by 20 percent to 30 percent, since provincial courts often use arbitrary sentencing and face political pressure to bring down crime rates.

"Local governments think it is a good tool to control public security. If they lose such power they think, of course, it would not be good," Liu said.

Since 2003, the Supreme People's Court has rejected 7.2 percent of death sentences, ordering retrials, and has reduced 22 percent of death verdicts to life imprisonment, Xinhua quoted Xiao as saying last October.

"The Supreme Court's taking back of the power to review all death penalty cases is a good step," said Dong Likun, the dean of the law school at Shenzhen University. "The procedures of capital punishment will be observed more strictly, and the number of people executed will go down."

Public debate about the death penalty indicates that some senior officials appear to favor reforms. Provincial leaders have resisted revising the death penalty, fearing they may lose the ability to fight crime.

Surveys show that Chinese citizens overwhelmingly support capital punishment.

Some Chinese legal scholars say the government should move slowly in admitting how many prisoners are executed each year and in releasing statistics on the rate of violent crime.

"Publication of certain information could be a double-edged sword," said People's University law professor Huang Jingping, asserting that it could provoke alarm. "The government needs to decide whether it would benefit or harm its management of society to publicize such information."

(Knight Ridder special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-EXECUTIONS

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