Rights Group Condemns Chinese Plan to Execute Purse Snatchers

The human-rights group Amnesty International is calling for China's central government to overturn a southern province's plan to apply the death penalty for robberies committed with violence. The plan comes as debate over the death penalty in China intensifies.

Amnesty International condemned southern China's Guangdong province, after a high court ruled that those convicted of purse snatching and other robberies using violence could be executed.

Amnesty researcher Mark Allison in Hong Kong says the court's decision goes against a recent trend in China to limit the use of the death penalty, which Amnesty believes is too readily handed out.

"Part of the problem in China is the death penalty is applicable to such a wide range of crimes. There is something like 68 crimes on the statute book in China, for which you can potentially get the death penalty - and these include nonviolent crimes, like tax fraud and bribery."

In terms of reform, China's national supreme court has announced it will start hearing death penalty cases publicly for greater transparency. The government is also considering making the supreme court the place of final appeal for death sentences. Appeals now now rest with provincial high courts.

Amnesty International says China's criminal justice system puts more people to death than any nation on Earth, but the exact numbers are not clear. China's communist authorities consider the number of executions to be a state secret. Independent estimates vary widely.

Liu Renwen, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, says he has drawn his own guess from reports by judges and courts.

"I think (it is) maybe around eight-thousand per year. But I have to repeat this: this is only my guess. This is not exact."

Liu, a vocal opponent of the death penalty, criticizes the government's refusal to disclose death penalty figures, saying the rule is hampering efforts to track whether executions have been an effective deterrent.

"This, (in) my own opinion, is very stupid because if we do not know the exact number, how can you give useful suggestions for legal reform? So, we are trying to persuade the government to open these statistics in the near future."

Despite government reports of a drop in violent crime, a poll by the survey company Horizon Research, suggests fewer Chinese felt safer last year than they did in the years before.