Judiciary seeks reform of death sentences

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 March, 2007, 12:00am

Application of capital punishment must stand the test of time, says circular

Top judicial and law enforcement authorities issued a circular yesterday that aims to reform the imposition of the death penalty.

The document, published by the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Justice, calls for a co-ordinated effort to ensure strict application of capital punishment so every case 'will be able to stand the test of time', Xinhua reported yesterday.

Analysts said the circular was in response to lingering questions over the supreme court's earlier decision to review from January 1 all death sentences handed down by the provincial courts. It is widely believed this decision is the most important judicial reform in the past two decades.

The circular bans the public parade of condemned criminals before their execution, which have been a standard procedure to 'shame' the defendants and to 'educate' the public. It also clarifies contentious issues and emphasises that the mainland will not abolish the death penalty but will impose the sentence with greater caution.

But some legal scholars believe the supreme court's move to invoke the power of review was the first step towards eventually abolishing capital punishment.

The circular stipulates that all appeals of death penalty cases require a formal court hearing - though not necessarily a public one - rather than merely what is often only a cursory review of the case. Briefs from prosecutors and defence lawyers must be submitted.

Along the same lines, final review also requires a hearing in principle, the circular says.

No hearings are held in most appeals against a death sentence, despite Criminal Procedure Law requiring this.

Law experts are worried that, without a court hearing, the supreme court's final review of such cases will lapse into a perfunctory role that fails to protect the rights of the defendant. Each death sentence case must go through a full review, the circular insists, which requires judges to check facts, laws and criminal procedures.

The circular recognises that not only the appellate and final review processes need improvement, but also the trial itself.

It stipulates that all illegally obtained evidence, such as testimony extracted by threat or torture, be declared invalid and excluded from trial. Judges may also visit the crime scene to re-examine evidence where doubts prevail.

Torture is prohibited under mainland law, but it is still widespread and police often use it to coerce 'confessions' from suspects.

Analysts say full implementation of the recommendations may prove to be slow, for practical rather than political reasons, and because of the difficulty of recruiting the 300 to 400 judges needed for the task. It is estimated that 10,000 executions are carried out on the mainland each year, more than half of the world's total.