Death Penalty Reform

China has the world's highest number of executions. There is currently no time-frame for abolition but there have been, over recent years, rapid developments in both attitudes toward, and implementation of, the death penalty in China and most notably the bringing back of review of all death penalty sentences to the Supreme People's Court (July 2007). As China takes steps towards the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, reform of the number of crimes attracting capital punishment is being actively discussed as well as fair trial issues in so far as they relate to capital crimes.

GBCC has been working with Chinese partners since 2003 on procedural and substantive law issues associated with the death penalty, and listed below are summaries of some of our key project work in this area.

EU & FCO Supported Death Penalty Reform Projects

In over a decade between 2003 and 2015, GBCC led – and in the final case, supported – four successive 3-year projects on death penalty reform in China, funded by the EU Commission Democracy and Human Rights fund (EIDHR) with partial co-funding from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office. These four projects administered a total budget of more than €3.5mn, including the final instalment which was led by the International Death Penalty Research Centre at Beijing Normal University.

It is a testament to the success of these projects that Beijing Normal University was able to take on the last instalment (2012-2015) independently, with support from GBCC, rather than as a supporting partner to a GBCC-led project. Through our cooperation, Beijing Normal University have built their project management capacity to the extent that they are able to take forward the objectives of these projects and deliver outcomes themselves. As stakeholders in China’s future legal and judicial reform, GBCC looks forward to supporting and cooperating with Beijing Normal University on future projects in which they will have the capacity to take the managerial lead.

One of the key European experts involved in this programme, Professor William Schabas, said of his experience:

“After more than a decade of various conferences on capial punishment in China, I found this to be the most encouraging of all. Often, the sessions have a confrontational tone, with European experts lecturing Chinese colleagues, who inevitably feel defensive. But the recent meeting was an entirely Chinese affair, and I sat there quietly like a fly on the wall. It was a sincere and productive exchange amongst the most senior Chinese experts in criminal justice about how to make dramatic reductions in the rate of execution.”

Limiting the Death Penalty for Drug-related Cases

In 2014 GBCC conducted a seven-month project to support and influence sentencing guidelines issued by the Supreme People’s Court to limit the use of the death penalty for drug crimes by judges. This project was developed based on a previous GBCC-EU death penalty project in Yunnan, which focused on drug related crimes. GBCC worked closely on this project with the Law School of Wuhan University and the No. 5 Criminal Court at the Supreme People’s Court.

The Power of Evidence

GBCC delivered a six-month project from 2010-11 to assess the effectiveness of two new evidence rules that had been issued in July 2010: the ‘Illegal Evidence Rules’ and the ‘Death Penalty Evidence Rules’. These were issued by five Chinese ministries, including the Supreme People’s Court. The project aimed to make evidence-based legislative recommendations concerning evidence law, which were included in the subsequent amendment of the Chinese criminal procedure law. Research conducted during this project established that in spite of these new illegal evidence rules, judges remained reluctant to exclude illegal evidence, owing to vested interests, and the strong possibility that a “not-guilty” verdict would count against a judge in their performance and result in loss of income and opportunity for promotion. This project was funded by the British Embassy in Beijing.


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