China's top legislature on Saturday ratified an extradition treaty with Spain, the first such agreement ever signed with a developed western country, in which China sets a precedent by agreeing not to execute repatriated criminals.
Legal experts said the landmark ratification means that China has committed itself to respecting the principle in law according to which no repatriated criminal suspects would face the death penalty. The principle is observed by major western countries.
The treaty also marks, "China's major shift in tactics in bringing fugitive, corrupt officials back to justice under its own legal jurisdiction," said Dr. Xu Hong, counselor with the Department of Treaty and Law under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in an interview with Xinhua.
"The treaty will help China weave a global extradition net to bring back corrupt officials who've fled abroad mostly seeking asylum in developed countries in Europe and North America," said Xu, who was also head of the Chinese delegation in China-Spain extradition talks.
Wu Dawei, China's vice foreign minister, said in a report to the legislature (the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress) earlier this week, "Spain is an influential country in the EU (European Union) and the treaty will effectively deliver a warning to corrupt officials who are at large in foreign lands."
Signing the extradition treaty with Spain would pave the way for more judicial cooperation with other western countries, he said.
The top legislature on Saturday also ratified an extradition treaty with Brazil, two treaties on legal assistance in criminal matters with Spain and France without reference to how to handle suspects who might face death penalty.
Fueled by surging economic figures crimes such as bribery and embezzlement have increased among government officials in China and a large number of crooked officials fled after receiving large sums of money.
According to a 2004 report released by the research institute attached to the Ministry of Commerce about 4,000 crooked Chinese officials fled overseas since China launched economic reforms in 1978, taking with them as much as US$50 billion.
Police statistics show there were still 500 economic crime suspects on the run in foreign countries in 2004. The money involved in these cases topped 70 billion yuan.
The police figures also show that from 1993 to January 2005 more than 230 Chinese criminal suspects had been repatriated from over 30 countries and regions with assistance from Interpol. But observers say they're just a fraction of suspects seeking refuge overseas.
Since 1993, China has signed extradition treaties with over 20 countries, mostly developing ones including Thailand, Laos, Belarus and South Africa. "Negotiations with developed countries were moving slowly," said Xu.
Observers said China's use of the death penalty especially for serious economic related crimes made it difficult to get cooperation on extradition with countries in the EU and North America who uphold the policy that no person who might be subject to the death penalty would be extradited.
To these countries extradition treaties can never be signed without China accepting that policy, Xu said.
"The constitution of Spain does not allow the death penalty," said Gregorio Laso, counselor of Information and Press at the Spanish Embassy in China. In an interview with Xinhua, Laso said the fact that two countries could resolve their differences in a legal system to cooperate demonstrated trust and respect between them.
"The treaty has a very positive impact on bilateral relations, pushing judicial cooperation to a new stage," Laso said. He added that the Ministry of Interior of Spain has set up an office in Beijing this month to take care of the judicial cooperation and that included extradition issues.
According to Xu, Spain made the proposal to China for extradition cooperation in September 2004. The two countries had all the treaty articles agreed in October 2005 and signed the document in Madrid on November 14, 2005, during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Spain. The legislature's ratification is required to finally enact the treaty according to Chinese law.
Though praised by Spain the treaty has stirred up debate among Chinese legal experts and lawmakers with some fearing it might weaken China's anti-graft efforts by exempting runaway crime suspects from the death penalty.
"Now, the issue is not that whether we should put them to death but is that whether we can bring them back," said Xu. He added that once crime suspects are living at large on foreign lands, it is of no use to simply vow death penalty for them.
In fact such an exemption has already occurred in relation to an official repatriated from the United States even without an extradition treaty. Earlier this month, a court in the southern province of Guangdong sentenced Yu Zhendong, a former bank official repatriated from the United States, to 12 years in prison for embezzlement.
Yu, former head of a Bank of China branch in the city of Kaiping was held responsible for a US$82.5 million loss at the bank and was returned to China in 2004 after it agreed on no death penalty for him.
(Xinhua News Agency April 29, 2006)