China's government is coming under increasing pressure to reduce its use of the death penalty, slowly shifting the country's legal system away from centuries of authoritarian tradition and toward greater legal protection for individual rights.
Beijing classifies the number of people it puts to death as a state secret, but it's believed to be nearly as much as all other countries combined. The human-rights group Amnesty International says China executed more than 1,700 people in 2008.
Legal experts are watching the case of a man in southern China who was sentenced to death three times -- and then spared execution three times -- to see whether recent legal reforms will save his life.
In 1983, Beijing wanted to punish criminals faster, so it gave provincial courts the final say over executions. It took back that prerogative three years ago.
Marked Decrease After Reforms
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences legal scholar Liu Renwen says the reform has had a dramatic effect on capital punishment in China.
"In the three years since the reform, the number of executions carried out in China has decreased by a large margin," he says. "My conservative estimate is that the number has declined by 50 percent or more."
On the outskirts of Foshan city in Guangdong province's Pearl River Delta, locals come to pray and burn incense at a small Buddhist nunnery. But resident He Xiuyun says most locals have been afraid of visiting since the murder of two nuns here six years ago.
"We hear that the killer climbed up that wall to the second floor and pried open that window there," he says, pointing to the nunnery's whitewashed facade. "He got in, went downstairs and was rummaging around when he woke up the two nuns. Then he killed them both."
Glaring Holes In The Case
Police arrested a young hardware salesman named Gan Jinhua. Two or three days later, Gan's elder sister went to see him at the police station.
She said her brother's hair was disheveled, and he was covered in dust.
"Two police officers, one on each side, dragged my brother out by his neck," she recalls in an interview at home. "He seemed to be limping, as if he had been beaten or abused. We said he looked pitiful. He looked fragile, as if he hadn't slept for 10 days."
Gan later said police tortured him into confessing to the double homicide. He told police that he threw the knife he used to kill the nuns into a nearby canal. Prosecutors dredged the canal, but no murder weapon was ever found.
There were other problems. The defense wanted to call witnesses -- including Gan's sister, police officers accused of torturing Gan, and a forensics expert -- but the court barred them from testifying. Defense lawyer Teng Biao says the court overlooked these glaring procedural flaws.
"In court, I pointed out all the holes in the prosecution's case, but the court took no notice of any of it," Teng says. "The court's final verdict made no mention of these important questions."
A local court sentenced Gan to death in 2005. But as he sat on death row, officials noticed that important evidence was missing and ordered a retrial. Gan lost that retrial and two more at higher courts, receiving a total of three death sentences.
The Supreme Court in Beijing is now reviewing Gan's sentence.
China has refused requests by the United Nations to disclose the number of people it executes. Amnesty International says China executed more than 1,700 people in 2008, roughly three-quarters of the world total. Some estimates put the number of executions in 2006 at 8,000.
China's traditional view is "a life for a life," and the country will not abolish the death penalty anytime soon. But Liu says the reform sends a clear message to local courts to execute as few people as possible.
The reforms were prompted partly by press reports about local courts putting the wrong people to death. Another reason, Liu notes, is that China has signed on to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and similar instruments.
"China's government attaches great importance to this U.N. convention," Liu says. "In principle, it requires abolition of the death penalty. Countries that have not abolished it must at least severely restrict its use."
More Legal Changes Needed
Most of China's neighbors still employ capital punishment. Legal scholars say the reforms are moving China in the direction of neighbors such as Japan, South Korea and India, which still have the death penalty, but seldom use it, and away from countries such as North Korea, which uses it widely and secretively.
Another reform that could help Gan's situation is a recent ban on the use of illegally obtained evidence, including coerced confessions. While the use of torture to extract confessions is already illegal, this is the first time China has banned courts from admitting evidence obtained this way.
But experts say the Supreme Court's review of death sentences remains imperfect. Gan's lawyer, Teng, complains that the review is a closed process, based mostly on court documents.
"There are no formal channels for the lawyers to express their opinions to the judges," Teng says. "Nor is there any opportunity for defense and prosecution lawyers to face off and argue their cases in front of the judges."
Earlier this year, Teng wrote an open letter to the Supreme Court. He said that whatever the verdict, Gan must not be sentenced to death a fourth time.