BEIJING — China, which executes more people than any other country, says it will show more leniency to those given death sentences, state media reported Wednesday.
In a series of interviews, the vice president of the Supreme People’s Court said that China was not ready to abolish capital punishment but that the penalty should be reserved for a small number of serious crimes, particularly those that threaten social stability.
More than 60 crimes can draw the death penalty in China, including tax evasion, embezzlement and drug trafficking, but the government does not release figures on the number of executions, many of which take place immediately after trials that legal experts say are unfair and lack transparency.
“Judicial departments should use the least number of death sentences as possible, and death penalties should not be given to those having a reason for not being executed,” Zhang Jun, the court’s vice president, was quoted as saying in the newspaper China Daily.
Human rights groups like Amnesty International estimate that more than 1,700 people were put to death in China in 2008, a sharp drop from a decade ago, when as many as 15,000 executions took place. The United States, by contrast, executed 37 people last year.
The number of executions in China began dropping in 2001 — not long after Beijing was chosen as the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
In 2006, reports in the state media put the number of executions at 8,000. In 2007, after the country’s high court was given the power to review all capital punishment cases, the number dropped even more sharply.
Last year, according to China Daily, the court overturned 10 percent of all death sentences imposed by lower courts. Although he did not spell out exactly how the judiciary would reduce executions, Mr. Zhang suggested that the number of eligible crimes would be scaled back through legislation and that lower courts would be encouraged to mete out a sentence known as “death penalty with reprieve.”
He noted that in recent cases, the high court had overturned death sentences for crimes of passion or for convicts who expressed remorse and pledged to compensate their victim’s relatives. As an example, he cited a man with the surname Shao who was convicted of killing his girlfriend after learning of her affair. Mr. Zhang said the high court suspended Mr. Shao’s death sentence because he showed regret and promised compensation for the woman’s family.
Other mitigating factors were that the victim’s behavior might have provoked the boyfriend’s violence, and that in the end, Mr. Zhang added, the crime did not “have a major social impact.”
China’s effort to limit the use of capital punishment comes after years of criticism from both domestic legal experts and foreign governments. He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University and a vocal opponent of the death penalty, said that despite such pressure, most Chinese people supported capital punishment as a means to control crime and exact vengeance. Since the high court began overturning death sentences in 2007, he said, many provincial officials have complained about a rise in crime.
“Throughout Chinese history, there has always been an emphasis on public executions, the more cruel the better,” he said. “But civilization has evolved, and it’s time we abandon, or at least severely limit, the use of capital punishment.”
Human rights groups welcomed the announcement but said the government should release more information about executions, which are considered a state secret.
“If the government wants the world to take its reform initiatives seriously, a good first step would be to reveal how many people it executes each year,” said Phelim Kine, an Asia-based researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Words are encouraging but until that happens, there will be a serious credibility gap.”