Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) Starting next year, China's Supreme People's Court will have the final say in every death sentence decision under a change to the law approved today. Under the new rules, all death penalties pronounced by local courts must be reviewed and ratified by the country's highest Court. The changes were made to end miscarriages of justice, state press reported.
The new legislation, which will take effect on January 1 of next year, is the "most important reform of capital punishment in two decades," the Xinhua news agency said.
Currently, the Supreme Court has no oversight over death sentence rulings by lower courts on violent crimes such as homicide, rape and robbery.
The new measures are "an important procedural step in preventing wrongful convictions" and in giving "defendants in death sentence cases one more chance to have their opinions heard," Chief Justice Xiao Yang was quoted as saying.
However, it is not clear whether this will involve a full appeal hearing or, as it is at present in lower courts, simply a review of the paperwork from the initial trial.
But some legal experts have opposed the change even before it became law. For He Weifang, law professor at Peking University, centralising decision-making will make matters worse. It is unreasonable because the centre lacks adequate human resources; centralising sentencing in death penalty cases requires hiring more staff. But the reason why this power was decentralised in the first place in 1983 was the lack of resources in dealing with high crime rates.
Alone China is responsible for 90 per cent of all executions in the world. In 2005, it executed an estimated 1,770 people and sentenced nearly 4,000 people to death. But for some human rights activists the real figure is at least "twice as many".
Last year, during the National People's Congress, a delegate, Chen Zhonglin, said that "every year China has nearly 10,000 cases of the death penalty," adding that real number remained a "state secret".
In mainland China, the death penalty is imposed for serious crimes but also in corruption cases and in many non violent crimes.
Under Chinese law, once under arrest, a defendant does not have immediate access to legal assistance. Defence attorneys are brought in only after police has ended interrogations. Even then, the right to legal council remains limited and can be denied.
Moreover, early interrogations often entail the use of torture with defendants forced to sign a "confession" which can then be used in a court of law against them and determine whether they are sentenced to death or not.
Contrary to international legal standards, there is no presumption of innocence under Chinese law.