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China Reduces Number of Crimes Punishable by Death

FILE - The trial of three people sentenced to death for their roles in an October attack on the edge of Beijing's Tiananmen Square is seen in this still image taken from video in Urumqi city, June 16, 2014.

China leads the world in executions, sentencing thousands of people to death every year. However there are signs the Chinese government is reducing the number of crimes punishable by death.

Earlier this year China announced plans to remove nine crimes from the list of capital offenses, including counterfeiting, fraudulent fund-raising and forcing others into prostitution.

The move came as Chinese President Xi Jinping sought to crackdown on corruption, of which most offences are related to financial crimes.

Last week, a Chinese court exonerated a teenager sentenced to death 18 years ago for rape and murder. That decision followed a case in June when the Supreme People’s Court overturned a death sentence for a woman who had murdered her husband. She said she had been the victim of domestic abuse for many years.

Human rights considerations

“I think that China doesn’t want to be too much of an outlier in respect to human rights," said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. "It’s not ready to embrace, respect and enforce human rights when it’s inconvenient for the Communist Party or the one party system, but otherwise I think that China by and large accepts the validity of human rights norms and wants to be a member in good standing of the international community.”

In 2011, China dropped 13 offenses from its list of crimes punishable by the death penalty, and these policy changes are having a real impact. Last year China executed 2400 people, according to human rights group Dui Hua. While that is more executions than the rest of the world combined, it is only 20 percent as many as in 2002, when China executed 12,000 people.

A majority China people support use of the death penalty. But the punishment is a potential trigger for social unrest. Chinese media has recently publicized wrongful convictions resulting in a death sentence, and according to a 2007-2008 survey by the European Commission most people in China believe conviction rates often fall along class lines.

Lack of transparency

Human rights groups say that while China has dramatically reduced the number of people executed, its judicial system still lacks transparency, making it difficult to know the true statistics on executions in the country. The death penalty has also been carried out in greater frequency in the restive region of Xinjiang province.

“It looks like, from all indications, the number of people receiving the death penalty and being executed has increased quite dramatically in that region in the last year. So that, to some extent, may offset the apparent decline in the number of people getting the death penalty and being executed,” said William Nee is a researcher with Amnesty International.

China’s execution rate still far exceeds that of other countries. According to Amnesty International Iran and Iraq fell to second and third place, respectively, behind China in executions, with at least 369 executions carried out in Iran and 169 in Iraq in 2013.