China defends use of death penalty

(dpa) - China on Tuesday defended its use of the death penalty and said it planned to continue "prudent" use of capital punishment.

"At present, there are more countries with the death penalty than countries without the death penalty," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in response to a report on Monday by Amnesty International, which said China still executed far more people than any other nation last year.

"It is not the right time for China to abolish the death penalty, to abolish it would not be acceptable to the Chinese people," Jiang told reporters.

"We take prudent measures to ensure that the death penalty only applies to small numbers of criminals who committed serious crimes," she said.

Amnesty recorded at least 470 executions in China last year, although it said the actual total, which remains a state secret, was "undoubtedly much higher."

"As the world and Olympic guests are left guessing, only the Chinese authorities know exactly how many people have been killed with state authorization," the Amnesty report said.

The human rights organization called on China to lift the "veil of secrecy surrounding the death penalty.

In an annual report last month, the country's top judge said China was using the death penalty more fairly under a strict review system introduced in January 2007.

But the report by Xiao Yang, head of the Supreme People's Court, gave no statistics for death sentences or executions.

Xiao said his court was working to limit the use of capital punishment to criminals convicted of "extremely serious, atrocious crimes that lead to grave social consequences."

State media reports have said serious economic crimes can still fit into that category.

In an interview with the China Law Net website, another top judge said the Supreme People's Court had rejected 15 per cent of death sentences passed by lower courts since January 2007, but again there were no statistics to back the claim.

Law professor Liu Renwen said in 2006 that an estimate of about 8,000 executions annually was "realistic." Liu said China had probably executed more than 10,000 people annually before 1997, when it abolished capital punishment for theft.

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