The policemen investigating a murderous assault knew they didn't
have enough evidence against their chief suspect, Li Jiuming, to
hold up in court. So they decided to do what police here often do,
according to Chinese lawyers: torture a confession out of him.
That false confession, presented four years ago to a court in
Tangshan, 100 miles east of Beijing, earned Mr. Li, a prison
administrator, a death sentence. But even as his lawyer was
presenting an appeals judge with testimony that police interrogators
had given Li electric shocks, beaten him, forced hot pepper-water up
his nose, and made him drink water until it came out his ears, the
real culprit was found.
Li was released. But his ordeal, and others like it, prompted
China's Supreme Court last week to assume exclusive authority to
review all death sentences, in a move that legal scholars say could
reduce abuses in imposing the death penalty and potentially cut the
number of people executed in China by as much as one-third.
The new law, in a country where the death penalty enjoys strong
popular support, is "an important procedural step to prevent
wrongful convictions," Supreme Court President Xiao Yang said,
according to the official Xinhua news agency. The agency trumpeted
the amendment as "the most important reform of capital punishment in
China in more than two decades."
China is thought to execute more prisoners each year than the
rest of the world's nations put together, though the statistics are
secret. Amnesty International says China executed at least 1,770
people last year, but estimates the real figure to be far higher.
The new law "is very positive," says reformist legal scholar Liu
Renwen. "It is a signal that our government will pay more and more
attention to limiting the use of the death penalty."
Giving the Supreme Court final review authority will reduce the
number of death sentences, analysts here say, because it is less
vulnerable to outside pressure than lower courts.
Local tribunals, even provincial high courts, "are easily
influenced by local authorities" says Chen Weidong, a professor at
Beijing People's University Law School. "And local authorities like
to use the death penalty because they think it is good for public
Zhu Aimin, the lawyer who defended Li against the trumped-up
charges of attempted murder, says "very strong pressure from
outside" was exerted in his case, though he is still reluctant to
identify its exact source.
In 2004, official figures show, the Supreme Court overturned 94
of the 300 death sentences it reviewed, though last year that
proportion dropped to about 11 percent.
The new amendment also removes a dangerous anomaly. Currently, 90
percent of death sentences are reviewed by the same provincial
courts that heard the appeals, which are unlikely to change their
own rulings. Supreme Court hearings will provide "another layer of
protection," hopes Mr. …