Only "extremely vile criminals" were executed in China last year, the country's top judge said Monday, declaring success in efforts to reform the much criticized legal system.
Rights groups say China executes more people annually than the rest of the world combined. But the number executions dropped last year due to new legislation to reserve the death penalty for only the most severe cases.
Death sentences were handed down only for an "extremely small number of extremely serious and extremely vile criminals posing a grievous threat to society," said Xiao Yang, chief justice of the Supreme People's Court.
Xiao, giving his report to the annual session of the National People's Congress, did not say how many prisoners were executed last year. Death penalty figures are treated as a state secret in China.
Human rights groups estimate that anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 executions are conducted in China each year.
The Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that advocates for political prisoners and researches Chinese prisons, said about 6,000 people were executed in 2007, a 25 to 30 percent drop from the year before.
"It's a step in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go," said John Kamm, the group's executive director.
The death penalty is believed to have popular support in China, but the reform begun last year shows the government is trying to change a system that often put people to death just a few weeks after conviction for crimes ranging from murder to corruption.
Kamm called the change the "most significant human right reform" carried out by the administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
However, authorities have made clear they do not intend to abolish the death penalty anytime soon. Senior Judge Huang Ermei of the Supreme People's Court said in comments published last week that China needed the death penalty to maintain social order.
"Currently our country does not have the conditions to abolish the death penalty and will not have those conditions for a considerable period of time," she said in an interview on the China Peace Web.
Along with curbing executions, the legal changes also restored the requirement that the Supreme People's Court automatically review all death sentences handed down in the country.
Under the new review process, the Supreme People's Court rejected 15 percent of the death sentences applied by lower courts, Huang has said. The death penalty was imposed for murder and other violent crimes, drug trafficking and corruption, she said.