China commuting more death sentences, judge says

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BEIJING, Nov 24 (Reuters) For the first time in its modern history, China has commuted more death sentences this year than it has carried out, the country's top judge said.

International rights groups estimate that China executes more people than any other country. But Beijing has been slowly reforming the death penalty system after several high-profile wrongful convictions raised public anger.

''The number of death sentences has been gradually decreasing and human rights are being better protected,'' Chief Justice Xiao Yang told a conference on court reform, the China Daily reported.

He gave no figures. The Communist authorities regard the number of executions as a state secret.

But Xiao said so far in 2007 the number of criminals given death sentences with a two-year reprieve, which usually becomes life imprisonment, had exceeded the total of immediate executions.

Capital punishment should be reserved for ''an extremely small number of serious offenders'', the paper quoted him as saying yesterday. ''The judicial reform process has been progressing smoothly, with leniency shown in a growing number of criminal trials.'' Last January 1 the Supreme People's Court took back its power of final approval for death penalties, relinquished to provincial high courts in a crime-fighting campaign in the 1980s.

Up to October, the number of death sentences immediately carried out in Jiangxi province had halved from the same period last year, the president of the provincial high court, Kang Weimin, told the conference.

Among those executed this year was Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of the food and drug safety watchdog, who was put to death for taking bribes to renew drugs licences.

REUTERS SKB VC1246

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