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BEIJING (Reuters) - The number of people sentenced to death by Chinese courts in 2006 was the lowest in nearly a decade and the trend has continued this year following a key legal reform, state media said on Monday.
International rights groups had estimated China executes between 5,000 and 12,000 people a year, more than any other country.
But China has been slowly reforming the death penalty system after several high-profile wrongful convictions raised public anger.
The Supreme People's Court took back on Jan. 1 its power of final approval on death penalties, relinquished to provincial high courts in a crime-fighting campaign in the 1980s.
"Among the death penalty cases the Supreme People's Court reviewed from January to July, a relatively large proportion was not given approval," Jiang Xingchang, vice president of the top court, told Outlook Weekly magazine.
"That is to say, executions would have been authorised (by provincial courts) if the final review power had not been taken back," Jiang said in rare official comments on the effect of the reform.
The approval rate had been increasing as a percentage of all death penalty cases, but it only reflected the improved quality of initial trials by local courts, Jiang was quoted as saying.
Jiang said the number of Chinese sentenced to death in 2006 was the smallest in about 10 years and the figure continued to drop in the first half of 2007. He did not give figures.
Chinese media reported last week that the rehabilitation of Nie Shubin, widely believed to have been wrongfully executed in 1995 for rape and murder, crimes a man named Wang Shujin said in 2005 that he had committed, had run into difficulty.
Authorities in the northern province of Hebei had chosen not to prosecute Wang for the crimes and sentenced him to death on other counts of murder, the Southern Weekend newspaper said.
Chinese media have widely suspected the omission was aimed at protecting police, prosecutors and judges involved in Nie's case more than 10 years ago.
Wang had appealed -- not against the death sentence but against the fact he was not charged with the rape and murder in Nie's case, saying he wanted to prove Nie's innocence, the newspaper said.
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