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Convicted criminals on death row will be entitled to free legal representation under a new rule drafted by the Ministry of Justice, a ministry source told China Daily.
The ministry will assign lawyers to condemned prisoners who cannot afford one during the review of their sentences to ensure equal access to justice, according to the source.
The source said officials from the ministry and the high court are "finalizing some detailed implementation measures and the rule will be released in the next few months".
The source asked not to be identified because she was not authorized to discuss the draft plan with the media.
Under Chinese law, all death sentences must be reviewed by the Supreme People's Court before defendants can be executed. Currently, defendants who cannot afford to hire lawyers are not guaranteed representation during a death penalty review.
Che Xingyi, a lawyer at Beijing's Yingke Law Firm, which specializes in representing clients in death penalty cases, said the top court conducts reviews based on files from local courts and lawyers' previous defense statements.
This method has limitations and is not sufficient to ensure justice, Che said.
It is "more than necessary" to offer legal aid during a review of a death sentence, he said. "If the lawyers discover flaws in sentencing criteria or new evidence, they will fully defend the suspects and communicate with the judges quickly to stop imminent execution."
China does not reveal the number of prisoners on death row.
However, last year, Chinese lawyers provided free legal aid to nearly 40,000 suspects facing life imprisonment or the death penalty, a year-on-year increase of 7 percent, according to the ministry.
The new rule follows a recent meeting of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, which stressed the importance of legal aid and was attended by the country's top leaders.
Paul Dalton, team leader for the China-EU Access to Justice Program, which was created to strengthen equality of justice in China especially among disadvantaged groups, recommended that Chinese judicial authorities be cautious when imposing the death penalty.
The top court would better protect prisoners' rights by holding public hearings during a death penalty review, Dalton said.
This would enable judges to listen to defense arguments by defendants and their lawyers instead of just reading the files.