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China Announces Sweeping Changes to Death Penalty Law


China's top legislature has adopted sweeping changes to the country's death penalty law.

The changes, announced by the Xinhua state news agency Tuesday, mean that starting January first, only China's Supreme Court will have the authority to review and approve death sentences.

The vote drew immediate praise from international human rights advocates who oppose the death penalty. They say the move will likely result in a drop in the number of executions.

Legal analysts say centralizing the process may help alleviate some the abuses committed by local courts in handing out some death sentences.

China legal expert Jerome Cohen, a law professor at New York University, told reporters in Beijing Tuesday the amendment may lead to further development of what he says is China's highly irregular appeals system.

"China hasn't got a defined process for considering appeals," said Cohen. "This is the problem with the death penalty review. And I feel the wonderful thing about the effort to improve procedures for reviewing death penalty sentences, is you can't limit it to death penalty cases."

Cohen says reforms will likely follow in the way life-sentences, and longer-term prison sentences are handed out.

Chinese state media have recently publicized cases where local courts ordered the execution of people who turned out to be innocent, prompting growing calls for reform of China's death penalty system.

The Chinese government has never said how many people it executes every year for crimes ranging from murder to tax evasion. But experts say China puts more people to death than any other country and estimate the annual figure to be in the thousands.