China's state media have reported a drop in executions since the country's Supreme Court reassumed responsibility for reviewing death penalty cases. Human rights organizations have welcomed the drop, but say China's judicial system, which executes more people every year than the rest of the world combined, still lacks the independence necessary to guarantee fair trials. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

The official China Daily newspaper Friday quoted a spokesman for China's highest court, Ni Shouming, as saying executions in the first five months of this year dropped ten percent from the same period last year.

Ni attributed the drop to the Chinese Supreme Court's taking back the power to review all death penalty cases in January, which he said meant lower courts had to be more "prudent" in sentencing people to death.

The report gave no details on how many people China executes each year. The Chinese government considers death penalty figures a state secret.

Nicholas Becquelin, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, estimates China executes 7,000 to 15,000 people a year, or some 20 to 30 people a day.

He says that, despite the Supreme Court's overview and the apparent drop in executions, China's courts still suffer from political and police interference, making fair trials unlikely.

"Whether you can be meaningfully defended and represented by an attorney, and whether the system is fairly full-proof against miscarriages of justice? none of these issues are really resolved by the recent reform," said Becquelin.

China's provincial courts were granted the power to execute prisoners more than 25 years ago to try to deal with a rising crime rate. But several recent public cases revealed that miscarriages of justice were far too common in death penalty cases, prompting China's Supreme Court to take back the power of review.

Becquelin says the recent push to cut down on executions is also meant to improve Beijing's image ahead of the 2008 Olympics.

"The number of death penalty [cases] and the sort of callousness in which the Chinese government executes people is regularly one of the top black spots on China's image in the international community," said Becquelin. "And, with the Olympic Games coming closer and closer, this is definitely something that the Chinese authorities want to be seen as acting over."

Earlier this year, China's chief justice urged courts to be cautious in issuing death sentences. He said capital punishment should only be used on a small number of criminals guilty of serious offenses.

The China Daily quotes Ni, the Supreme Court spokesman, as saying murders sparked by family disputes will not necessarily warrant the death penalty. He also says the death penalty will be used less in cases of severe economic crimes.