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China on Monday exonerated a teenager executed more than 18 years ago for the rape and murder of a woman, drawing approval from judicial reform advocates who saw his death as a symbol of the miscarriage of justice in capital punishment cases.

A retrial by an Inner Mongolian court found that Huugjilt, then 18 years old, was wrongly convicted in 1996 of raping and killing a woman in a public restroom.

Another man confessed to the murder in 2005, but a retrial was not conducted until this year, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

A court official apologized to Huugjilt's sobbing parents, who had been petitioning judicial authorities since 2006 to re-try the case, state media reported.

Legal reforms

China has embarked on legal reforms, including reducing the use of the death penalty, as public discontent mounts over wrongful punishment.

“This shows the spirit behind judicial reform in our country and that the will to pursue justice exists - that's a good thing,” said Chen Guangzhong, a top scholar of criminal law at the China University of Political Science and Law.

Chen added, however, that there remain significant obstacles to reform of the death penalty and that abolishing capital punishment completely is unlikely at present.

The decision to exonerate Huugjilt was the most talked-about topic on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, with 84,000 comments.

Huugjilt's family could not be reached for comment. Many ethnic Mongols in China use only one name.

While wrongful executions have often stirred public outrage, capital punishment itself has wide support from the Chinese public.

Executions carried out

China guards the number of people executed annually as a state secret, but anti-death penalty campaigners say it uses the death penalty in far greater numbers than other countries.

“Death penalty cases have been subjected to closer scrutiny in recent years, in large part in a response to domestic outcry in cases of individuals who are convicted of serious crimes like murder and rape who are found later to be innocent,” said Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch.

The government has tightened rules on evidence to exclude confessions obtained through torture, although torture is still widely used, Wang said. China denied that the practice is widespread and said a torture ban is effectively enforced.

China said in October it is considering trimming nine crimes from the list of offenses punishable by death in a draft amendment to the criminal law. The death penalty applies to 55 offenses in China, including fraud and illegal money-lending.