The country's chief justice yesterday said the highest court will "never again" grant the final say on pronouncing the death penalty to provincial courts.
"We will never go back to the situation 26 years ago and retrogress," Xiao Yang, president of the Supreme People's Court, said on the sidelines of the annual session of the country's top legislature.
He was referring to 1981 when the apex court began to grant provincial courts the authority to hand down death sentences amid rising crimes following the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).
The practice, which had drawn criticism especially after reports of miscarriage of justice, came to an end on January 1, when the Supreme People's Court was given the sole power to review and ratify all death sentences to ensure they are processed with "extreme caution".
"A case involving a human life is a matter of vital importance," Xiao said. "We can never be more careful in this regard."
To prepare for the major shift, the court conducted "meticulous" research and came up with interpretations or guidelines with regard to the use of capital punishment, he said.
In particular, it has identified major crimes and settled on criteria which could lead to the death penalty. They include murder, robbery, rape, kidnapping, drug trafficking and other brutal crimes.
In his annual work report to the top legislature on Tuesday, Xiao pledged that the death penalty will be exercised "more cautiously for only a small number of extremely serious offenders with hard evidence" and every case "will be able to stand the test of time".
The country has been training all its judges who pass death sentences, and the supreme court alone trained 5,500 last year, Xiao said.
"All this is to guarantee there would be no problem (in cases which could lead to the death penalty)," he said.
Also yesterday, Ni Shouming, a spokesman for the highest court, said China has no timetable for abolishing the death penalty although it may eventually do so in line with international practice.
"Abolishing the capital punishment has been a global trend, and we will eventually work toward that direction," Ni told China Daily.
Ni said it is up to the National People's Congress to decide when the capital punishment should stop being applied.
It is unlikely to be in the near future, although at least 123 countries have already done so, he said.
"The concept that one must pay with his or her life for a murder is deep-rooted in the minds of many people in China," Ni said. "An early abolition of the death penalty will not get extensive support from the general public."
The spokesman categorically denied a South China Morning Post report that 10,000 executions are being carried out annually on the Chinese mainland, saying the figure was "unreasonable and groundless".
He reiterated that the country chose not to single out the figure for executions but releases a total figure which includes all those sentenced to at least five years in prison including life imprisonment and the death sentence. In 2006, the figure was 153,724.
Last Sunday, the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Justice jointly released a circular, calling for coordinated efforts to ensure strict application of capital punishment.
However, the official said: "Capital punishment will be handed down to senior corrupt officials if the evidence is clinching."
In an online interview with Xinhuanet on Tuesday, Ni also said China's promise not to sentence the country's most-wanted fugitive Lai Changxing to death, if he is found guilty, is an essential prerequisite to have him repatriated from Canada.
"We made the promise to seek his repatriation, and it is the only correct option to punish crimes and safeguard the interests of the nation," Ni said.
Lai is accused of being the mastermind behind the country's largest smuggling ring.
Source: China Daily