China's Top Legal Officials Call For Reduction in Executions

China's top law-enforcement agencies are calling for a reduction in executions in the country. Sam Beattie reports from Beijing.

Human rights groups say China executes more prisoners than the rest of the world combined, but exactly how many die each year is not known. The Chinese government considers that information a state secret.

Activists estimate anywhere between 5,000 and 12,000 people are executed in China each year. Amnesty International says Chinese researchers put the number of executions at around 8,000.

Whatever the number, China's top legal bodies now agree that it is too high. In a joint statement released Sunday, the Supreme Peoples' Court, the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Justice have called for a decrease in the number of people sentenced to death.

According to the official New China News Agency, the statement says China cannot abolish the death penalty, but should "gradually reduce its application."

It also says that if there is any question about whether the death penalty is appropriate in a given case, that person "should without exception not be killed."

The news agency says the statement calls for the courts to pay more attention to evidence instead of confessions, and reminds law enforcement officials that the use of confessions made under torture is banned. It also calls for authorities to stop the practice of publicly parading people sentenced to death before their execution.

Supreme People's Court President Xiao Yang told the National People's Congress session in Beijing the public still needs to be protected, and criminals should still be punished harshly.

Xiao says the death sentence should be cautiously applied, however, and ratification procedures and sentencing standards in death penalty cases should be improved.

The reasoning behind the joint statement was not made public. But the Chinese media in recent years have reported a number of wrongful convictions leading to innocent people being executed.

On January 1, China's Supreme Court was given the power to review all death sentence cases, taking discretion away from the provincial courts.

Mark Allison, Amnesty International's East Asia researcher, says academics and others in China suggest that as much as a 30 percent of death sentences could be eliminated.

But it will be difficult to know, he says, since the statistics are secret. Allison calls it ironic that China argues the death penalty is a deterrent to crime, and then refuses to publicize the number of executions.

"If the Chinese government insists on the argument that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime, then clearly it is not a deterrent to keep those statistics secret," he said.

Almost 70 crimes are punishable by death in China, ranging from rape and murder to large-scale corruption and tax evasion.