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Punishing rights lawyers a top achievement, says China

In report to parliament, chief justice singles out prominent lawyer's 'severe punishment' as one of top accomplishments.

China has praised punishments given to a prominent human rights lawyer and his associates as one of its legal system's top accomplishments last year.

In an annual report to China's parliament, Chief Justice Zhou Qiang singled out Zhou Shifeng, who in August was sentenced to seven years in prison for "subversion". He said the "severe punishment of the crime of endangering state security" committed by rights defenders was a key achievement in 2016.

Zhou Shifeng's Fengrui law firm was known for taking on cases considered sensitive by the ruling Communist Party, such as those of dissident scholars, victims of sexual abuse and members of banned religious groups. 

Activists and lawyers in China are often accused of being in cahoots with foreign organisations trying to undermine national security and stir up opposition to the government.

In the report, chief justice Zhou also praised President Xi Jingping's anti-graft campaign, which he said saw the number of corruption cases tried in China's courts last year rise by about a third from 2015.

Xi has presided over a much-publicised crackdown on rampant government corruption since coming to power in 2012, with more than one million officials punished in what some compare to a political purge.

In 2016, Chinese courts heard 45,000 graft cases involving 63,000 people, up from 34,000 cases in 2015.

For overall hearings, the Supreme People's Court heard nearly 23,000 cases and local courts heard some 23 million last year, with only 1,076 defendants found not guilty, according to data cited by Zhou.

In a separate report to the assembly, China’s top prosecutor, Cao Jianming, said that the government last year initiated investigations against 47,650 people for taking advantage of their official posts. He said 48 officials above the rank of minister were prosecuted, including Ling Jihua, a former chief of staff to ex-President Hu Jintao who was sentenced to life in prison in July for taking bribes, illegally obtaining state secrets and abusing power.

Zhou Qiang also said that China, which is believed to execute more people than the rest of the world combined, gave the death penalty “to an extremely small number of criminals for extremely serious offences” in the past 10 years.

The actual number of executions in China is a state secret. A 2007 decision that all death sentences must be reviewed by the Supreme People’s Court is believed to have reduced the number of executions dramatically.

Dui Hua, a US-based rights group, estimated that about 2,400 people were executed in China in 2013, one-tenth the number in 1983. It said that according to its sources, the number of annual executions remained largely unchanged in 2014 and 2015.

China typically hands out death sentences in cases of murder, rape, robbery and drug offences.


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