As part of our work engaging with China on the death penalty, we decided to undertake a review of how far the minimum standards set out in the UN Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty, were respected in China’s application of the death penalty. These standards provide a starting point for assessing how far those states that have not yet abolished the death penalty protect persons from the risk of wrongful or unfair executions.

In drafting this report, we found that China has taken several important steps to improve protection for those facing the death penalty in recent years. Most significant was the new formulation of policy towards the death penalty, “balancing leniency with severity”, and the reinstatement, in 2007, of the power of the Supreme People’s Court to review all death sentences. 

Some of the challenges that remain include that death penalty sentences are given for non-violent crimes, particularly drug-related offences, that do not meet the threshold of "most serious crimes" under international law.

There is also no right to an independent and impartial tribunal by persons facing the death penalty in China. The authority of the Chinese Communist Party over the Chinese legal system ensures that courts, at all levels, are required to consider the interests of the Party in their decision making. However, there is limited recourse to a more individualised sentencing by the Chinese courts.

China cannot guarantee the provision of effective counsel in death penalty cases. The role of lawyers is restricted and they are not given sufficient opportunity to present evidence in mitigation. The lack of adequate funding for legal aid in death penalty cases discriminates against defendants on the grounds of economic status.

We produced this interim review in time for the 7th World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Brussels. In a final version we will include a fuller discussion of relevant comparative law with a view to publishing a report which will, we hope, stimulate discussion in China.

Read in Full: Respect for Minimum Standards? Interim Review of the Death Penalty in China.