Timely move to limit death penalty
Beijing finds itself caught in the middle of conflicting sentiment over the use of the death penalty. It has long been under pressure from human rights groups around the world to reduce the number of executions. But now that courts are handing down more suspended death sentences and other lesser penalties instead, the public is becoming frustrated when corrupt officials or notorious murderers are treated more leniently. So much so that there have been calls for capital punishment in high-profile cases recently. Observers attribute this to public anger over perceived injustice in the courts and the widening wealth gap. It is timely, therefore, that the Supreme People's Court has reaffirmed the new sentencing policy by instructing judges to limit the use of the death penalty and commute all capital punishment that does not warrant immediate execution to suspended death sentences.
China continues to execute more people than any other country, if not the rest of the world. That is unlikely to change while the death penalty is prescribed for more than 50 crimes, more than half of them non-violent, including forms of commercial fraud that have flourished in a market economy under socialism with Chinese characteristics, even if it is rarely invoked in these cases.
But the latest development, which narrows the considerable room for discretion enjoyed by lower courts, points towards further reduced use of capital punishment. It follows the direction four years ago that the Supreme People's Court must review all death sentences. Beijing said last year this had led to a 15 per cent drop in executions. Commentary in Xinhua noted that limits on the use of the death penalty is an international trend and that more than 90 countries had scrapped it without suffering a soaring crime rate. That time is far off on the mainland, although the central government says it will eventually abolish the death sentence. Meanwhile, it is important that the authorities press on with reform of the legal system and that the courts become more open, independent and transparent.