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Supreme Court's Review of Death Sentences Reinstated

Three review courts are to be established with the Supreme People's Court to deal with capital punishment sentences, Vice President Wan Exiang of the Supreme People's Court (the Supreme Court) said on Sunday in Beijing at a public lecture on judicial reform at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

The move is to refine the death penalty review process and make it independent of any other administrative organ, Wan said.

Amidst a rise in violent crimes in the 1980s, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), the country's top legislature, revised the law to allow the Supreme Court to transfer the review of death sentences for certain violent offences, such as homicide and arson, to provincial higher courts.

The establishment of the three review courts, in addition to the existing two in the Supreme Court, is a first step to reform. The courts will take over the reviewing rights of the death penalty in practice and make it independent of government organs and eliminate any interference, Wan said.

The Supreme Court will implement a series of reforms focused on instituting judicial "independence, openness, procedures and final judgments," Wan said.

To accelerate the reform of the justice system, the rule of judicial independence is very important, Wan said.

"Many countries have abolished capital punishment, and China is under pressure to do so as well." Wan said.

Wan said the abolition of the death penalty is not an easy issue because of the entrenched belief in "a life for a life".

It is hoped that the additional review courts will help to unify execution procedures among the various provinces, Wan said.

Previous reform suggestions by experts about returning the review of death sentences to the Supreme Court included establishing new court branches, setting up circuit courts, and increasing the number of Supreme Court personnel.

"The third suggestion is the most practical and cost-efficient," said Professor Chen Weidong, director of the Research Center on Law System and Justice Reform, affiliated to Renmin University of China.

At least 300 judges will be appointed to the three review courts, according to a report by the China Youth Daily on September 27.

"If things go smoothly, the three review courts will take over death penalty review rights from next year. This should happen after judicial reform implementation details are approved by the national judicial reform group," He Jiahong, a professor with Renmin University, said.

The national judicial reform group was formed in 2003. It is headed by Luo Gan, a Standing Committee member of the Political Bureau and secretary of the Political and Legislative Affairs Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee.

A three-member collegiate bench will then be set up to review death penalty cases submitted by provincial courts, according to a judge from the Supreme Court, who asked not to be named. 

The judge said that factors to be taken into consideration during the review process will include the age of the accused; if the accused is a woman, whether or not she is pregnant; whether the law was applied correctly; examining evidence and its sufficiency; consequences of the crime; and whether there is scope for leniency.
When the Criminal Law was amended in 1997, 40, mostly non-violent, offences were added to the list of offences punishable by death. There are currently a total of 68 offences that carry the death penalty.

In 2004, a total of 767,951 sentences were handed down by China's courts at all levels, up 2.8 percent from the previous year. About 19 percent of those sentences were imprisonment for five years or more, life imprisonment and the death penalty collectively.

(China.org.cn by Wang Zhiyong, September 28, 2005)

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