updated 10/31/2006 5:42:30 PM ET 2006-10-31T22:42:30

China’s highest court must approve all executions under legislation enacted Tuesday, prompting human rights activists to express hope the country will reduce its world-leading use of the death penalty.

The amendment to China’s capital punishment law follows reports of wrongly convicted people being executed and criticism that the death penalty has been imposed arbitrarily by lower courts.

China is believed to carry out most of the world’s court-ordered executions, putting to death hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people each year for crimes ranging from murder to such nonviolent offenses as tax evasion.

Amnesty International says China executed at least 1,770 people in 2005, but the true number is thought to be many times higher. In a statement Tuesday, the London-based rights group cited a senior member of China’s national legislature as saying some 10,000 people are executed each year.

By Amnesty’s figures of known executions, China was responsible for more than 80 percent of the 2,148 people executed last year, including 60 in the United States.

“Clearly the changes are going in the right direction,” Mark Allison, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty, said of the new legislation, which takes effect Jan. 1. “But we’re still calling for China to go further — to abolish the death penalty.”

China’s official Xinhua News Agency hailed the amendment as “the most important reform of capital punishment in China in more than two decades.”

The change “deprives the provincial people’s courts of the final say on issuing death sentences,” the agency said. “Death penalties handed out by provincial courts must be reviewed and ratified by the Supreme People’s Court.”

Decision to have 'psychological effect'
The change adopted by the legislature Tuesday enshrines last year’s announcement by the Supreme People’s Court that it would start reviewing all death sentences, ending a 23-year-old practice of giving the final review to provincial courts.

“It’s great news. This is a big step forward for China’s legal system and human rights,” said Li Heping, a prominent activist lawyer.

“It’s going to have a psychological effect on local judges when they are making decisions because they are going to be afraid that if they approve capital punishment, the supreme court will overrule them,” Li said.

Jerome Cohen, an American expert on Chinese law, called the new law “encouraging and significant” but said the next challenge will be enforcing the change.

“The court has been working hard to recruit a sufficient number of judges. It’s proving to be slow going,” Cohen said. “That itself tells you what a huge burden it is to adequately review the large number of death sentences.”

Details about criteria for reviewing death sentences, as well as the standards and procedures, have to be worked out, he said.

In June, Xinhua said 30 judges from lower-level courts had been selected as the first trainees for death penalty tribunals. It said they will get three months of training and be on probation for a year before receiving a final appointment.

The court was also considering lawyers and law school teachers for the tribunals, Xinhua said.

Complaints have been common that lower-level courts mishandle death penalty cases.

Execution error
Last year, a woman believed murdered in the 1980s in the central province of Hunan reappeared, 16 years after the man convicted of killing her was executed.

At the time of the execution, the court reportedly said the defendant confessed. Chinese police often are accused of torturing suspects into making confessions.

The case is one of a number of high-profile cases that state media has publicized in recent years highlighting the flaws of an aggressive policy of judicial executions. Death penalty lawyers and legal scholars in China have also begun discussing more openly the need for China to establish clearer procedures for the death penalty.

There has not been any debate, however, about abolishing capital punishment.

Allows defendants another chance
Xiao Yang, the high court’s president, said the new legislation is “an important procedural step to prevent wrongful convictions,” according to Xinhua. “It will also give the defendants in death sentence cases one more chance to have their opinions heard.”

The high court itself has been involved in controversial death penalty decisions.

In December 2003, a gang boss who said he was tortured into confessing to corruption charges was executed in the northeastern city of Shenyang in an anti-graft crackdown.

A provincial court had issued a reprieve, citing the possibility the torture claims might be true, but the Supreme People’s Court overruled that decision and ordered his immediate execution.

Cohen said he hoped the amendment means that “ultimately there will be a reduction in the number of people executed — and certainly the number of people executed wrongly.”

However, Amnesty noted in its statement that there is a danger the new legislation “could further entrench the death penalty system in China.”

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