MAINLAND legal experts are calling for tighter restrictions on capital punishment, saying the penalty has been used extensively to deter a wide range of crimes. The experts, who made the call at a legal reform conference, said capital punishment should be reserved for criminals who committed violent offences. In addition to limiting use of the death penalty, the experts suggested that as China moved towards a market economy, the focus of legal reform should shift to commercial crime. The semi-official Hong Kong China News Agency said yesterday the delegates had put forward 'original new ideas' at the meeting. These included standardising punishments and making penalties for companies more severe than those for individuals. Moreover, they suggested the Chinese judiciary should give clear-cut guidelines on the calculation of fines and that dereliction of duty by civil servants should be considered a serious offence under the penal code. But the experts, who were not identified in the agency report, said the death penalty should be imposed on 'heinous violent criminals'. They said those guilty of commercial crimes, such as profiteering, should be punished through heavy fines or long jail terms. They were also quoted as saying that as legal reform gained momentum, non-violent crimes should not attract capital punishment. Foreign analysts said such offences could cover sensitive areas such as 'leaking state secrets' and 'spreading counter-revolutionary propaganda'. The analysts said the experts' call was significant. But they have cautioned it could be an uphill battle to reduce the use of capital punishment. They pointed out top Chinese communist leaders had repeatedly called for the use of heavy penalties against people who had looked for shortcuts to prosperity during China's long march from its old command economy to a market-oriented system. For instance, a man in Heilongjiang province was executed for stealing 14 cows last year. Another report in October said six people had received the death sentence for forging value-added tax invoices. Information released by the London-based watchdog Amnesty International showed that at least 696 people had been executed in the first half of this year. Some foreign human rights observers contended the true tally might run to more than 10,000. A Hong Kong-based Chinese legal expert said mainland academics had made similar appeals as early as the late 1980s, arguing the law had been too far-reaching. 'There have been many revisions of the criminal law since its promulgation, so that capital punishment is made applicable to a large range of offences,' the expert said. The spokesman for Human Rights Watch/Asia in Hong Kong, Robin Munro, said mainland jurists and legal experts had expressed worries over the extensive and excessive use of the death penalty for many years. He said capital punishment was being more widely used in China today than in the 1970s. 'It is politically unacceptable to advocate abolition of the penalty [in China],' he said.