Despite the televising of many executions as a form of public intimidation, the absolute number of executions in China remains a state secret. Nonetheless, international human rights groups estimate that between 1,700 and 5,000 Chinese prisoners were executed in 2008. Death penalty crimes include corruption, espionage and drug trafficking.
Possibly in response to the international outcry over the large number of executions, two years ago the Supreme Court was given the right to review death penalty cases. It overturned about 10% of them in 2008.
According to Zhang, new legislation will soon be enacted to cap the number of death penalty sentences and further restrict the use of capital punishment. This will include an increase in the use of the “death penalty with reprieve” sentences which allows initial commutation to life in prison and possible later commutation to 20 years or even less in consideration of good behavior. According to the government, the death penalty will now only be used for heinous crimes with “grave social consequences.”
“Judicial departments should use the least number of death sentences as possible, and death penalties should not be given to those having a reason not to be executed,” said Zhang.
Some prisoners had already had their death sentences reduced if they expressed remorse or agreed to pay victims restitution.
Critics call the new policy a step in the right direction, but decry it as too ambiguous. They have adopted a “wait and see” attitude on whether it will result in actual reductions in executions.
“It is a small incremental step, but a step in the right direction,” said China National Association of International Studies director Victor Gao. “While other countries have abolished the death penalty because they think it is cruel and unusual punishment, China has decided it wants to keep the death penalty.”
The same could be said of the United States.
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