According to a directive, which came into effect yesterday, open court sessions are now mandatory for death sentence trials in the second instance.
The move is considered a major step towards ensuring cautious imposition of capital punishment and guaranteeing human rights.
It is expected to ensure a stricter review of verdicts passed by lower courts, and accused persons and their lawyers will have more opportunities to defend their case through court debate.
Previously, most appellate or high courts at the provincial, municipality or autonomous region level merely reviewed legal documents if a lower court's decision was challenged. No second hearing would be called for. The practice has been criticized for being a miscarriage of justice.
It was only in the second half of this year that all death sentence appeal cases were heard in open court.
According to ruling issued by the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate capital cases with a two-year reprieve will be reheard, as will cases where defendants have new evidence to produce or if the public prosecutor lodges a protest.
In addition, court presidents or chief judges from tribunals will preside over extremely complicated and difficult cases.
According to Chinese law, municipal-level intermediate courts have the right to impose the death sentence after an initial trial.
If the accused appeals or the public prosecutor lodges a protest against the initial sentence, a higher provincial-level court hears the case.
To hear death penalty appeals in open session is only one step in making judges more cautious about delivering the death penalty, as well as ensuring their decisions are just and well grounded.
The Supreme People's Court has also decided to withdraw its powers to re-examine all death penalty verdicts and give the final nod to executions. But no timetable has been given.
The nation's highest court currently reviews and makes the final decisions on certain death penalty cases, including economic crimes, but gives the power of sentencing for offences such as murder and arson to provincial-level courts.
(China Daily September 26, 2006)