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In China, some are rethinking the death penalty

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BEIJING — A 21-year-old music student named Yao Jiaxin was executed this month for a particularly grievous crime: After accidentally hitting a female bicyclist with his car, Yao saw she was still alive, so he stopped, got out and stabbed her eight times to make sure she was dead and could not identify him.

In a country with the world’s highest number of executions, the fact that Yao was sentenced to death was not uncommon. At least on the Internet, his crime was widely denounced, with citizens demanding Yao’s death.

What was unusual was the intense public soul-searching the case also unleashed. Many legal professionals and others openly questioned whether justice was served by executing a young man who voluntarily turned himself in and confessed, and whose family offered to pay compensation. His crime touched a nerve here — a young man of privilege who killed a poor woman on a bicycle — but many blamed an online mob mentality for forcing a supposedly dispassionate court into imposing a death sentence.

The result was a public broaching of a long-taboo subject here: whether China executes too many people too hastily.

The government appears to be thinking the same thing. Last month, the Supreme People’s Court began implementing several new measures aimed at reducing the number of capital sentences.

“Yao’s case had a big influence on society,” said Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar and member of a small group called China Against the Death Penalty. “A lot of people felt shocked. They felt shocked by the process. Some people thought the netizens pushed the court into giving Yao the death penalty.”

In China, executions are typically carried out swiftly and out of public view — traditionally with a single gunshot to the back of the head, but now increasingly by lethal injection. A handful of highly publicized cases, like Yao’s, are reported in the media, but the annual toll is not released and is treated as a state secret.

But Amnesty International, which tracks capital punishment worldwide, estimates that China executes more people each year than the rest of the world combined — as many as 6,000 people put to death in 2010. By comparison, according to Amnesty, the country with the next-highest recorded rate of executions in 2010 was Iran, with 252, followed by North Korea with 60, Yemen with 53 and the United States with 46.

Abolitionists acknowledge that the majority of Chinese still back capital punishment. But they also note that majorities in some European countries support the death penalty even as their governments have abolished it. Xu and other abolitionists say they hope Yao’s case will give new momentum to a cause that had for years failed to find much backing here.

“I feel the number of people against the death penalty has grown very dramatically” in just the past year, said He Weifang, a law professor at Beijing University who has always opposed capital punishment. “In the last 15 years, only two or three people in this country were trying to abolish the death penalty.” Now, he said, the abolitionists are gathering strength so fast that “you can call it a movement.”

The legal changes that went into effect in May reduced the number of crimes punishable by death from 68 to 55. The crimes removed were mostly economic-related and nonviolent, such as smuggling cultural relics and robbing graves.

Most significantly, the new rules give provincial courts the option of suspending an execution for two years. If the condemned prisoner behaves well during those two years, his or her sentence can then be commuted to life, which in China usually means 25 years.

The first to benefit under the suspension rule was Hou Qinzhi, a fruit vendor in Nanjing who had his scale seized in August by a city government inspector. The vendor wrestled with the inspector and ended up stabbing him with his fruit knife. He was sentenced to death, but last month the execution was suspended for two years.

The Supreme People’s Court, in response to a list of faxed questions, directed a reporter to its 2010 report, released in May, that says lower-level courts should “ensure the death penalty only applies to a very small number of criminals who have committed extremely serious crimes.” It adds that the lower courts “should try their best not to sentence the death penalty with immediate execution.”

The legal experts said the government’s changing attitude toward capital punishment may reflect sensitivity to international criticism — and in this case, unlike criticism of its politics or economic policies, in an area that does not touch on the core ideology of the ruling Communist Party.

So far, the voices arguing for fewer executions seem to be limited to legal scholars, the urban elite and some newspaper and online commentaries. A majority appears to back executions, particularly in cases involving corrupt officials or those perceived to be members of the elite.

When Yao, the music student, was on trial, several lawyers declared publicly that he should be spared the death penalty. Li Fenfei, a law professor at Remnin University, wrote a blog post arguing that Yao had turned himself in, that he had acted in the heat of the moment and had not planned to kill the bicyclist. Also, Li said, “he’s quite young, in his 20s. In China, we believe young people can make a mistake.”

But after his blog post appeared, Li was bombarded with rude and threatening comments. “You mean that if you have money you have the right to kill? So where do you live?” one anonymous commenter wrote.

But in another high-profile case, public opinion has taken the opposite view. Xia Junfeng was a laid-off worker who sold kebabs from a cart in Shenyang, in China’s northeast. He was convicted of killing two city security guards in 2009 when they confronted him over his unlicensed cart; Xia asserts he acted in self-defense, when the city officials began to beat him.

Xia has attracted enormous sympathy around the country as a poor man set upon by local officials. He was sentenced to death, but his lawyers are asking the Supreme Court to spare his life, and the final decision is pending.

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.

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