China's Supreme Court will no longer permit provincial courts to review death sentences so as to ensure that capital punishment is meted out meticulously and fairly, Chief Justice Xiao Yang, also president of the Supreme People's Court, said in Beijing Tuesday.
"The death sentence is the most serious level of penalty for criminals. It is reserved for felons guilty of the most atrocious crimes," Xiao said at a legislative hearing on court work.
China still practices capital punishment as a deterrent to preserve social stability, but "as few executions as possible should be carried out and as cautiously as possible, in order to avoid wrongful executions," the top judge said.
Review of the death penalty is a special procedure in Chinese criminal law to "ensure that death sentences are justified and appropriate".
According to the law, executions must be approved by the Supreme Court before being carried out. However, to facilitate swift punishment for criminals captured during the country's 1983 "Strike Hard" anti-crime drives, an exception was made so that violent felons like murderers could be put to death with the approval merely of provincial-level "higher people's courts."
Xiao told legislators that the Supreme Court and the country's provincial courts have exercised their right of review of death sentences submitted by local courts with care.
Since 2003, the Supreme Court has rejected 7.21 percent of the death sentences, ordering a retrial for lack of sufficient evidence, and changed 22.03 percent of the death verdicts to death with reprieval or life imprisonment, said Xiao, without giving the exact number of such sentences.
Meanwhile, provincial courts have thrown out 4.44 percent of death sentence verdicts for lack of sufficient evidence, and revised 38.14 percent of the verdicts to lesser punishments, he said.
But several wrongful death sentences exposed this year has prompted legal professionals to think twice about the death penalty system. Many of them are calling for the Supreme Court to rescind provincial tribunals' right of review. A man convicted of murdering his wife in Hubei Province was very lucky when his "dead" wife emerged. The case prompted a national uproar.
Liu Zuoxiang, an professor with the Law Institute of China Academy of Social Sciences, told Xinhua the major problem with the reviewing system is that different provincial courts have different criteria on what kind of felons should be executed, which is not good for the human rights of the convicted.
Xiao said that the Supreme Court has also held seminars recently to analyse wrong judgements to help local courts improve their proficiency levels. "Judges directly responsible are being investigated, and some have been dealt with according to the law," Xiao said.
He told lawmakers that according to a "preliminary legal reform plan," the Supreme Court will be solely responsible for executing the death penalty review right "for the protection of human rights."
A special tribunal will have to be set up in the Supreme Court to handle the extra workload, and the revision of related laws has begun.