China moves to reduce number of
crimes punishable by death

Human rights groups welcome proposals but say that 55 common
offences remain unaffected

Leatherback turtle
proposals are accepted, the crime of smuggling endangered animals
such as the leatherback turtle (above) is one of those that will no
longer be subject to the death penalty. Photograph: Natural

China is moving to
soften its image as the world’s biggest executioner by removing the
death penalty for tax dodging, fiddling receipts and smuggling
endangered animals.


The maximum sentence for these and 10
other crimes that can currently be punished by lethal injection
could be reduced to life imprisonment under a draft revision of the
criminal code, which still has to be officially approved, the state
media reported today.


The proposed downscaling of capital
offences was hailed by Chinese legal experts as a step forward in
the liberalisation of the justice system, but international
human rights
groups said the steps did not go far enough because the death
penalty remains in place for 55 more common crimes and the justice
system is shrouded in secrecy.


China does not make public the number
of executions carried out each year, but the Dui Hua Foundation, a
US-based human rights group, estimates about 5,000 convicts are put
to death each year, down from about 10,000 a decade ago.


The reduction is largely due to a
decision in 2007 to put all death penalty cases up for review by
the supreme court, rather than have summary sentencing at a local
level. Even with this reform, China is thought to execute more
prisoners than the rest of the world put together.


Foreign government and civil rights
organisations have repeatedly called on China to move towards
abolition, particularly after miscarriages of justice. Concerns
also grew after the execution of Akmal Sheikh, the convicted
British heroin smuggler who was given a lethal injection last
December. He was the first European in 50 years to get the death
penalty in China despite his family’s claims that he was suffering
from mental illness.


That case would probably not have been
affected by the revision submitted to the standing committee of the
National People’s Congress this month, which mainly focused on
white collar crime.


According to the Xinhua news agency, it
proposes cutting the death penalty for 13 “economy-related,
non-violent offences” and for people aged 75 and over. It also
criminalises the trade in human organs, many of which come from
victims of the death penalty.


Overseas human rights groups say it is
difficult to assess whether the revision marks a change of style or
substance because the number of death penalties remains a state


“We welcome any genuine attempt to
reduce the death penalty in China, but it is unclear whether this
is legislative housekeeping that will have little effect on the
overall number of executions,” said Catherine Baber, Amnesty
International’s deputy programme director for Asia. “China could
certainly make more meaningful reductions. We encourage them to
make more effort to catch up with the global trend, which is to
abolish the death penalty.”


There are also fears that an increase
in the maximum life sentence from 20 to 25 years – another proposed
revision to the criminal code – could result in more miscarriages
of justice if judges use this option when there is insufficient
evidence for the death penalty.


Local lawyers said, however, that the
draft was an important step forward. “This is a significant change
that shows the progress of the Chinese legal system and public
awareness about the law,” said Han Jiayi, a senior member of the
All-China Lawyers’ Association. “In my own practice I have observed
a steady decrease in the number of death penalty cases. Even if
these 13 crimes were not removed from the list, the reality is that
they are rarely punished with the maximum penalty nowadays.”


He Weifang, a law professor at Peking
University, said international opinion and appeals from academics
in China had encouraged the authorities to scale back the list of
crimes. “But an even more important fact is that the death penalty
has not proved very effective in reducing economic crime.”


Not all the sentencing is obsolete,
however. Last year a man was given the death penalty for smuggling
82 saker falcons and other endangered species. This would no long
warrant execution if the draft revision is approved by the National
People’s Congress.


• Additional reporting by Cui Zheng

that could escape the death penalty

If the revision to the criminal code is
accepted, the following offences will no longer be punishable by
death in China:

Smuggling antiquities

Smuggling precious metals

Smuggling rare animals and rare animal

Smuggling ordinary goods and

Receipt fraud

Financial document fraud

Credit note fraud

Writing false VAT receipts for tax

Selling forged VAT


Teaching criminal methods

Theft of ancient cultural relics

Theft of fossils