China put 2,400 people to death last year, a US-based human rights group said yesterday, shedding rare light on a statistic Beijing considers a state secret.
The figure was a fall of 20 per cent from 2012, the Dui Hua Foundation said, and a fraction of the 12,000 in 2002.
China is so reticent on the issue that it has done nothing to publicise the long-term decline in its use of the death penalty. But it still executes more people than every other country put together, human rights groups say.
The total for the rest of the world combined was 778 people in 2013, according to campaign group Amnesty International's annual report earlier this year. It did not give an estimate for Chinese executions.
Dui Hua said it obtained its figures from "a judicial official with access to the number of executions carried out each year".
But the annual declines were "likely to be offset" this year, it said, due to factors including the "strike hard" campaign in the violence-wracked region of Xinjiang .
Hundreds of people have been convicted of terrorist offences in the area, and last week a court condemned 12 to death in connection with a July attack.
"China currently executes more people every year than the rest of the world combined, but it has executed far fewer people since the power of final review of death sentences was returned to the [Supreme People's Court] in 2007," Dui Hua said.
The top court examined all death sentences issued in the country, and sent back 39 per cent of those it reviewed last year to lower courts for more evidence, Dui Hua said, citing the Southern Weekly newspaper.
The legal system is tightly controlled by the ruling Communist Party and courts have a virtual 100 per cent conviction rate in criminal cases.
The use of force to extract confessions remains widespread in the country, leading to a number of miscarriages of justice.
The authorities have occasionally exonerated wrongfully executed convicts after others came forward to confess, or because the supposed murder victim was later found alive.
In one landmark case in June, the Supreme People's Court overturned the death sentence on Li Yan, a woman who killed her abusive husband.
Earlier this year the director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, Mabel Au Mei-po, said that in 2011 Beijing took 13 offences off a list of 68 crimes punishable by death, including financial crimes.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Executions down but China 'still leads the world'
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