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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And Im Michele Norris.

And we begin this half hour in China, where legal reforms are gradually moving the country away from its authoritarian tradition. The government recently banned courts from admitting confessions obtained through torture. It has also begun to restrict use of the death penalty. The government classifies the number of people it puts to death as a state secret but it's believed to be nearly as much as all other countries combined.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn tells a story of one man from southern China who was sentenced to death three times but spared each time. Now, observers wait to see if legal reforms ultimately save him.

ANTHONY KUHN: On the outskirts of Fushun City in South China's Pearl River Delta, there's a small Buddhist nunnery where locals come to pray and burn incense. But resident He Xiuyun says most locals have been afraid of visiting since the murder of two nuns here six years ago. She points to the nunnery's white-washed wall.

Ms. HE XIUYUN: (Through Translator) We hear that the killer climbed up that wall to the second floor and pried open that window there. He got in, went downstairs and was rummaging around when he woke up the two nuns. Then he killed them both.

KUHN: Police arrested a young hardware salesman named Gan Jinhua. Gan's elder sister went to see him at the police station. She said her brother was covered in dust.

Unidentified Woman: (Through Translator) Two police officers, one on each side, dragged my brother out by the neck. He seemed to be limping, as if he had been beaten or abused. We said he looked pitiful. He looked fragile, as if he hadn't slept for days.

KUHN: Gan later said that police tortured him into confessing to the double homicide. There were other problems. The defense wanted to call witnesses, including Gan's sister police accused of torturing Gan, and a forensics expert. But the court barred all of them from testifying.

Defense lawyer Teng Biao says the court overlooked these glaring procedural flaws.

Mr. TENG BIAO (Defense Attorney): (Through Translator) In court, I pointed out all the holes in the prosecution's case, but the court took no notice of any of it. The court's final verdict made no mention of these important questions.

KUHN: A local court sentenced Gan to death in 2005. But while he was sitting on death row, officials noticed that important evidence was missing and ordered a retrial. Gan lost that retrial and two more at higher courts, making a total of three death sentences. The supreme court in Beijing is now reviewing Gan's sentence.

In 1983, Beijing wanted to punish criminals faster, so it gave provincial courts the final say over executions. It took back that prerogative three years ago.

Chinese Academy of Social Science legal scholar Liu Renwen says that that reform has had a dramatic effect on capital punishment in China.

Professor LIU RENWEN (Legal Scholar, Chinese Academy of Social Science): (Through Translator) In the three years since the reform, the number of executions carried out in China has decreased by a large margin. My conservative estimate is that the number has declined by 50 percent or more.

KUHN: The human rights group Amnesty International says China executed more than 1,700 people in 2008, roughly three-quarters of the world's total. Just two years before that, China carried out 8,000 executions by some estimates.

China's traditional view is a life for a life, and the country will not abolish the death penalty anytime soon. But Liu says the reform sends a clear message to local courts to execute as few people as possible. The reforms were prompted partly by press reports about local courts putting the wrong people to death.

Another reason, Liu notes, is that China has signed on to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and similar instruments.

Prof. RENWEN: (Through Translator) China's government attaches great importance to this U.N. convention. In principle, it requires abolition of the death penalty. Countries that have not abolished it must at least severely restrict its use.

KUHN: Legal scholars say the reforms are moving China in the direction of neighbors, including Japan and South Korea, which still have the death penalty but seldom use it, and away from countries such as North Korea, which use it widely and secretively.

Whether all this will help Gan Jinhua is another matter. Lawyer Teng Biao complains that the supreme court's review of Gan's sentence is a closed process, based mostly on court documents.

Mr. BIAO: (Through Translator) There are no formal channels for the lawyers to express their opinions to the judges. Nor is there any opportunity for defense and prosecution lawyers to face-off and argue their cases in front of the judges.

KUHN: Earlier this year, Teng wrote an open letter to the supreme court. In it, he wrote that whatever verdict Gan gets, he must not be sentenced to death a fourth time.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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