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China's Chief Justice Urges New Care with Death Penalty


China's Chief Justice has urged the country's judges to exercise caution when sentencing people to death. The comments are the latest show of concern about China's overuse of capital punishment.

China's state media quoted the Chief Justice of China's Supreme Court, Xiao Yang, as telling the country's judges they should always avoid ordering death sentences if they have legal grounds to do so.

Xiao said if convicts turn themselves in or help officials to solve crimes, judges should generally not sentence them to death.

But he ruled out abolishing capital punishment entirely, saying it is necessary to safeguard the state and the public and ensure smooth economic construction.

China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu echoed those comments.

"More than half the countries in the world maintain a death-penalty system. China is one of them. Currently, China's national reality determines that China does not have the conditions to abolish the death penalty completely," she said.

Jiang did not elaborate on what would need to change in China in order to eliminate the need for capital punishment.

Human rights organizations say China executes thousands of people every year, more than any country in the world. The Chinese government keeps the actual figure a secret.

China's Supreme Court is set next year to take back the power to review all death sentences, a move rights groups have commended. The government in 1983 gave lower courts the power to impose death sentences, in an effort to crack down on violent crime.

But China in the last year has been embarrassed by a series of wrongful murder convictions.

In one case, the supposed murder victim turned up alive after the alleged killer had already served 11 years in prison. In a similar case, the so-called victim turned up alive, but the alleged murderer had already been put to death.

Such cases ignited a debate over the country's use of the death penalty, and led the Supreme Court to decide take back control of the situation.

China's criminal justice system has also been criticized for presuming defendants guilty. Chief Justice Xiao said less than one percent of criminal defendants have been found not guilty in the last nine years.