BEIJING (Reuters) - China's top court has rejected 15 percent of death sentences handed by lower courts, citing poor evidence and procedural errors under new rules, but a top judge said the death penalty will remain in place for a long time.
China keeps secret the number of prisoners it executes, but international human rights observers have no doubt it judicially kills more than any other country -- with estimates of executions somewhere between 1,000 and 12,000 a year in recent times.
But from the start of 2007, China's Supreme People's Court took back power of final approval on death penalties, relinquished to provincial high courts in the 1980s, and promised to apply the ultimate punishment more carefully.
In a rare glimpse into how the new rule is working, the president of the top court's criminal law chamber, Huang Ermei, said that in 2007 it rejected 15 percent of death sentences passed by lower courts, according to the China News Service on Saturday. She gave no hint of the overall number of executions.
Huang said the rejections were due to "unclear facts, insufficient evidence, inappropriate determination of punishment and unlawful procedures."
She also said 2007 was the first year that the number of prisoners who received "death penalties with reprieve" -- that convert into long prison terms after two years unless the convict offends again -- was more than the number outright executed.
Huang did not say how many of the prisoners whose death sentences were rejected were then freed or given jail sentences.
The judge said China was far from ending executions, which international groups such as Amnesty International have urged.
"Abolition of the death penalty is the international trend in criminal punishment, but our country doesn't possess the conditions to abolish it," she said, adding that China would keep the death sentence "for a considerable time to come."
In a longer account of Huang's comments on an official law-and-order news Web site (www.chinapeace.org.cn), Huang said that Chinese people widely believe the death penalty is needed to deter crime that is rising as the country grows.
Surveys show 90 percent of Chinese people want executions for people convicted of grave corruption and heinous crimes, Huang said.
Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani