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ROME, Aug 4 2009 (IPS) - Movement towards the global abolition of the death penalty and the reduction in the number of executions over the last decade were confirmed in the last report of Hands Off Cain. Moreover, in China, which accounts for more than 80 percent of the world’s executions, this reduction was accompanied by another promising development: the vice president of the Chinese Supreme Court, Zhang Jun, announced in a statement on June 29 that the country would gradually slow the implementation of capital punishment to the point that there is “a very limited number of executions”.

It is estimated that in the last two years Chinese courts have handed down 30 percent fewer death sentences, while the Supreme Court has annulled 15 percent of the death sentences it reviewed. The additional reduction announced by the Supreme Court would reinforce the downward trend, and even though it would not indicate a policy shift towards an immediate suspension of the death penalty or radical democratic reforms, it is a very significant development in terms of human lives, given the thousands of executions that China carries out each year.

Now this process must be supported and accelerated such that China can move in the direction of the universal moratorium on executions approved by the United Nations, in the wider context of the definitive abolition of the death penalty worldwide.

For the abolitionist organisation Hands Off Cain, the primary goal is to eliminate the keeping of “state secrets” regarding the death penalty, a practice still found in China as well as many other countries, nearly all authoritarian.

Experience has taught us that the lack of public information on the actual implementation of the death penalty is one of the concrete causes of the elevated number of executions. Because of this we are calling on the secretary general of the UN to name a Special Envoy charged with observing the implementation of the death penalty in countries with capital punishment and demanding greater transparency in its administration.

The Hands Off Cain report, which covers 2008 and the first six months of 2009, shows that the number of countries or territories that have abolished the death penalty in law or practice has risen to 151, of which 96 are absolutely abolitionist. There are now 42 de facto abolitionist countries, which have either not had an execution in at least ten years or are internationally committed to abolition. As for countries that still have the death penalty, the number drops every year, from 54 in 2005, 51 in 2006, 49 in 2007, and 46 in 2008. It is estimated that the number of total executions worldwide has fallen from 5851 in 2007 to 5727 for last year.

In this context, Asia is once again the continent where nearly all of the world’s executions take place: at least 5666 in 2008, or 98.9 percent of the total -down slightly from 5782 in 2007. In contrast to these frightening figures, there were 38 executions in the Americas (37 in the US and one in St. Kitts), 19 in Africa, and four in Europe, all in Byelarus, which remains the only death penalty country on the Old Continent. The three countries that lead the world in executions are China, ahead by far, followed by Iran and Saudi Arabia -all three ruled by authoritarian regimes.

China’s record is staggering. Hands Off Cain estimates that there were at least 5000 executions in China last year, a number close to that for 2007 though slightly lower than in previous years. According to the Dui Hua Foundation, which also specialises in monitoring this issue, the true number of executions for 2008 was well above 5000 and may have neared 7000. However, there is no way of verifying these figures because information on the death penalty is a state secret in China.

Nonetheless, it is known that there has been a significant drop in the number of executions in China since January 1, 2007, when the judicial reform went into effect requiring Supreme Court review of all death sentences handed down by lower courts; 15 percent of capital sentences reviewed in 2008 and the first semester of 2009 were overturned, though the exact number is not known.

Despite this initial sign of an apparently legalist trend regarding China’s death penalty, the maximum sentence continues to be imposed for both violent and non-violent crimes, while Chinese lawyers denounce the fact that they are denied access to their clients and that many confessions are obtained by force.

Another criticism is that the death sentences of government bureaucrats who steal massive quantities of money from the state are frequently suspended while normal citizens who steal far smaller amounts have their sentences carried out and die by lethal injection or a bullet to the head. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Elisabetta Zamparutti is a deputy in the Italian parliament, a leader of the Radical Party, and editor of the annual report on the Death Penalty in the World for Hands Off Cain.

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