BEIJING (Reuters) -- The Supreme Court has urged China's judges to limit the use of death penalty to those convicted of the most serious crimes, under a policy of "justice tempered with mercy," the official Xinhua news agency said.
Guidelines sent to courts nationwide still say the death penalty should be "resolutely" handed down when merited, but this applied only to a "tiny minority" of the most serious cases with ample, valid evidence, Xinhua said in a report late on February 9.
China is probably the world's most prolific state executioner, with at least 7,000 people sentenced to death and 1,718 people executed in 2008, according to Amnesty International.
It has drawn criticism from rights activists for the high execution rate and the range of crimes that carry the death penalty. It now applies to more than 60 offences, including many non-violent and economic crimes.
The new guidelines were issued ahead of a world congress against the death penalty, to be held in Geneva this month, at which China is likely to be a focus for discussions.
The rules also call for courts to offer reprieves where allowed by law. When Chinese courts mete out death sentences with a reprieve, they are usually commuted later to life in jail.
Supreme Court spokesman Sun Jungong, quoted by Xinhua, said the guidelines were a new interpretation of the "justice tempered with mercy" policy first approved in 2006.
Repeat offenders should be treated with severity, while children and elderly people who commit crimes should get a more lenient approach from the courts, Xinhua said.
Commutations for those convicted of major crimes, like murder, will be limited, and commutations for ex-officials who abused their position must be heard in court, the guidelines say.
In January 2007, the Supreme People's Court regained the power of final approval of death penalties, devolved to provincial high courts in the 1980s, and it promised to apply the ultimate punishment more carefully.
The high rate of executions was thrown into the international spotlight at the end of last year when a British citizen caught smuggling heroin was put to death, despite pleas for clemency from Britain and his family, who said he was mentally unsound.