03 July 2006 :China's high courts began open hearings for death penalty cases in a long-awaited move aimed at raising the quality of justice in capital punishment cases.
"With the ultimate power to assess cases involving capital punishment now given to the high courts, our nation's judicial system is faced with new and higher requirements in its deliberation work," China's top judge Xiao Yang said in a statement.
The new procedures were a result of the "nature of domestic and foreign politics," Xiao said, acknowledging international concern over the number of people executed in China.
The move was also aimed at curbing the use of torture to extract confessions. China's Supreme People's Court acknowledged that forced confessions had led to miscarriages of justice and misuse of the death penalty.
"In a summary by the Supreme Court of unjust and problematic cases involving mistaken executions ... it was discovered that most cases had problems relating to using torture to extract confessions," vice Supreme Court justice Zhang Jun said on June 30.
Provincial high courts must now open hearings for defendants who face the death sentence and allow defense attorneys to present testimony and review evidence, Xiao said.
Previously, these courts had only approved death sentences from case documents and did not hear defense arguments or testimony from defendants.
The new hearings must also be videotaped so that legal procedures can be reviewed, the Supreme People's Court said.
Xiao said the new procedures would improve judicial decisions, public prosecution, legal defense and prosecutorial investigation.
"The Supreme People's Court has ordered that cases concerning the death penalty be heard in an open court in the second instance," he said in a statement on the court's website.
"This is a strict implementation of the principle of public and open hearings and is an important procedure ensuring higher standards of quality in handling cases involving the death sentence."
Zhang said use of torture by Chinese police and prosecutors to extract confessions from suspected criminals appeared widespread.
"In the hearings in the higher courts in Beijing, Shanghai and other regions, defendants when asked by the court almost always said that torture was involved in their confessions," the China News Service quoted Zhang as saying. "This has made it more important for courts to become increasingly prudent when investigating oral confessions and other evidence in an effort to avoid unjust, mistaken cases."