BEIJING (AFP) - China defended its use of the death penalty amid an international campaign urging the country to abolish capital punishment as part of a human rights clean-up ahead of the 2008 Olympics.
China is expected to be a focus of the campaign, as more people are believed to be executed here each year than in the rest of the world combined, but Beijing said its use of capital punishment was in line with human rights.
"More than half the countries in the world have the death penalty system and the Chinese government has all along implemented it in the spirit of the constitution," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a press briefing.
"We control the use of the death penalty out of the respect for human rights."
Jiang was responding to a call to be made at the World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Paris beginning Thursday for Chinese President Hu Jintao to stop executions ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
The gathering of activists and non-governmental organisations will also call on China to work towards a "definitive abolition" of the death penalty, according to a draft of their appeal released to the media.
Amnesty International said at least 1,770 people were known to have been executed and 3,900 people sentenced to death during 2005, based on public reports.
However human rights groups believe the real number of people executed annually could be as high as 10,000 to 20,000.
"All the statistics, numbers and many issues related to the death penalty, such as organ harvesting, are (shrouded in) complete secrecy," Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong told AFP.
Bequelin and other activists believe the range of crimes punishable by death is too wide, and that the deficiency of China's legal system means miscarriages of justice are common.
"The combination of the two is lethal," he said.
Currently, the death penalty in China is applicable to around 70 criminal offences, such as robbery, rape and murder, but also for economic crimes such as corruption and fraud.
Amnesty International has demanded that China reduce the number of offences punishable by death and make public its execution statistics before the Olympics.
"The Olympic charter talks about principles with respect to human dignity ... and the death penalty completely flies in the face of any respect to human dignity," said Mark Allison, Amnesty's East Asia researcher in Hong Kong.
"So we want to see reforms in the death penalty in the run up to the Olympics."
A recent Amnesty report said injustice was widespread in China's death penalty system.
"No one who is sentenced to death in China receives a fair trial in line with international human rights standards," it said.
"Failings include: lack of prompt access to lawyers, lack of presumption of innocence, political interference in the judiciary and failure to exclude evidence extracted through torture."
Despite some recent encouraging signs, such as a new rule introduced on January 1 that requires China's highest court to review every death sentence, Chinese scholars say ending capital punishment will not happen any time soon.
"Maybe in 30 years' time we will not carry out the death penalty," said Chen Zhonglin, director of law faculty at the Southwest University of Politics and Law in Sichuan.
"(But) there are still more than 40,000 homicide cases across the country ... so this is one way of protecting innocent lives."

Copyright 2007 Agence France Presse