Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Big Change in China's Death Penalty Policy

The Chinese government has announced new legislation marking a major change in its death penalty policy:
China's official Xinhua News Agency hailed the amendment as "the most important reform of capital punishment in China in more than two decades."

The change "deprives the provincial people's courts of the final say on issuing death sentences," the agency said. "Death penalties handed out by provincial courts must be reviewed and ratified by the Supreme People's Court."

The change adopted by the legislature Tuesday enshrines last year's announcement by the Supreme People's Court that it would start reviewing all death sentences, ending a 23-year-old practice of giving the final review to provincial courts.

"It's great news. This is a big step forward for China's legal system and human rights," said Li Heping, a prominent activist lawyer.

"It's going to have a psychological effect on local judges when they are making decisions because they are going to be afraid that if they approve capital punishment, the supreme court will overrule them," Li said.
China is said to carry out more court-ordered executions than any other country in the world, and many of these cases have been problematic to say the least - riddled with errors, carried out in haste with no opportunity for judicial review, in a process that is arbitrary in its uneven application. Unquestionably innocent people have been put to death.

I'm against the death penalty. To me it's a mark of shame that my own country pratices state-sanctioned executions. But it's a step in the right direction to at least apply the ultimate penalty with some care and opportunity for redress.

The cynical part of me wonders if this is another part of the Central government's efforts to reign in unruly and disobedient local governments. The optimist hopes that it marks a further strengthening of a rule of law in China with a foundation of justice, as opposed to the whims of authority.

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