China’s Supreme Court is to strip lower courts of the power to confirm death sentences, a move that is likely to reduce the number of executions and could help prevent deadly miscarriages of justice.
China executes thousands of people every year and Higher Courts have since 1983 been able to confirm most death sentences, which are often handed down after brief and rudimentary trials.
Authorities’ enthusiasm for executions has made Beijing a target of criticism by international human rights groups and has also been the subject of increasing debate in Chinese legal circles in recent years.
Such debate has been fuelled by rare revelations in domestic media of a series of spectacular miscarriages of justice. In one case a man was sentenced to death for the murder of his wife and spent years in jail even though she was actually still alive.
Xi Xiaoming, vice president of the Supreme Court, told the FT earlier this year that capital punishment should be used cautiously and that officials had for some time been considering proposals to limit authority to apply it to the nation's top legal body.
The court on Thursday confirmed its plans in a report published on its website that said the grant of approval authority to lower courts made it harder to maintain “sentencing quality”.
“Taking back authority for death penalty approval will undoubtedly be of great service in ensuring strict control of its use, setting a unified standard and fulfilling constitutional human rights protections,” the court said. It gave no details of a timetable.
Of the capital cases sent to it for confirmation since 2003, the Supreme Court has ordered retrials in 7 per cent of cases and has suspended the death sentence or changed it to life imprisonment in 22 per cent, the official Xinhua news agency said, but gave no details.
Some scholars say requiring Supreme Court approval for all executions could cut the number carried out by a third. It should also reduce the influence on capital cases of local interest groups, which sometimes hold sway over lower courts’ deliberations.
However, judging the impact of the reform will be difficult, since Beijing treats the number of people shot or executed by injection as a state secret.
Amnesty International, the human rights organisation, says it counted 200 reported executions in just two weeks in early February and has cited suggestions by a senior Chinese legislator that the true annual toll could be close to 10,000.
In one famous case in 2003, the Supreme Court imposed the death sentence in an extraordinary retrial of a criminal boss who had been shown leniency by a lower court amid doubts about the evidence against him.