Law Amended To Require SPC Approval of All Death Sentences

November 3, 2006

The Supreme People's Court (SPC) submitted a new amendment to the Organic Law of the People's Courts to require that all death sentences be approved by the SPC, according to an October 28 China Daily report (reprinted in Xinhua). The National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) issued a decision on October 31, making the amendment effective as of January 1, 2007, according to a Xinhua report (reprinted in China Daily) on the same date.

Xinhua quoted Xiao Yang, President and Chief Justice of the SPC, as saying that the new amendment will "give the defendants in death sentence cases one more chance to have their opinions heard." Xiao explained that reclaiming the power of death penalty review from provincial-level high courts will allow the SPC to separate review and approval of a death sentence from the appeals process at the local level. Xinhua notes that the practice of allowing provincial-level high courts to handle both the appeal and the final review of a death sentence has generated increasing criticism "for causing miscarriages of justice." A September 30, 2005, Southern Daily editorial (in Chinese) pointed out that provincial-level high courts typically combine the appeals process with the review process, therefore making the review process meaningless. Moreover, the ability of local administrative bodies to control the finances and staffing of provincial-level high courts makes those courts more susceptible to outside pressures than the SPC.

The new amendment brings the primary law governing China's judiciary into conformity with other laws governing the criminal process. The China Daily report comments: "In fact, a revision to the Criminal Procedure Law in 1996 and the Criminal Law amendment in 1997 both had clear stipulations requiring death sentences to be approved by the Supreme People's Court. But such stipulations have not been officially implemented." The SPC first shifted the legal authority to review and approve certain death sentences to provincial high courts in 1980, and the NPCSC incorporated this devolution of authority into law with a 1983 Amendment to the 1979 Organic Law of the People's Courts. The 1983 Amendment changed the requirement that the SPC decide or approve all death penalty cases to create the following carve-out:

The Supreme People's Court, when necessary, may authorize high people's courts of provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities directly under the central government to exercise the authority to review and approve cases in which the death penalty is imposed for homicide, rape, robbery, causing explosions, and other crimes seriously endangering public security and social order.

Beginning in 1997, Article 48 of the Criminal Law and Article 199 of the Criminal Procedure Law again imposed the requirement that the SPC approve all death sentences. The government has allowed the outdated 1983 Amendment to remain effective until January 1, 2007.

The new amendment also incorporates into law policy goals that the SPC established in October 2005, when it issued a Second Five-Year Reform Program for the People's Courts to highlight reform of the death penalty review process as a priority topic for the Chinese judiciary. On September 21, the SPC and Supreme People's Procuratorate issued a joint interpretation to establish specific guidelines for how local courts and procuratorates should handle death penalty appeals. The SPC has not yet issued a judicial interpretation to settle unresolved issues in the death penalty review process and to clarify its own procedures for final review.

For more information on Chinese law governing the review and approval of death sentences, see the CECC's topic paper on The Execution of Lobsang Dondrub and the Case Against Tenzin Deleg: The Law, the Courts, and the Debate on Legality. See also information on "Capital Punishment," in Section V(b) of the CECC's 2006 Annual Report.