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Chief Justice Vows 'Extreme Caution' in Death Penalty Cases
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China's chief justice said yesterday the highest court will "never again" grant the final say to provincial courts in death penalty cases.


"We will never go back to the situation we were in 26 years ago," Xiao Yang, president of the Supreme People's Court (SPC), said on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), the country's top legislature.


In 1981 the SPC began to grant provincial courts the authority to hand down death sentences amid rising crimes following the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). That practice drew harsh criticism after several cases involving miscarriage of justice were reported.


After some deliberation, the authority of the lesser courts was revoked on January 1, and the SPC given sole power to review and ratify all death sentences to ensure they are processed with "extreme caution."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 compiled a list of guidelines with regard to the use of capital punishment, he said.


These guidelines identify major crimes and set criteria for cases that could result in 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," adding that every case "will be able to stand the test of time."


The country has been training all its judges who issue death sentences, and the SPC alone trained 5,500 last year, according to Xiao.


"This is to guarantee there will be no problems (in cases that could lead to the death penalty)," he said.


Also yesterday, Ni Shouming, a spokesman for the SPC, said China has no timetable for abolishing the death penalty although it may eventually do so in line with international practice.


"Abolishing 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 NPC to decide when 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 that 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 SPC, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, as well as the ministries of public security and 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.com 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.


(China Daily March 15, 2007)

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