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Top judge says China needs more legal reforms

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BEIJING — More reforms are needed to China's judicial system to overcome lingering problems with transparency and corrupt judges, the country's top judge said Sunday.

Supreme People's Court President Wang Shengjun said in his annual report to the National People's Congress, China's parliament, that the court will work to create a better legal environment to protect economic and social development and will deepen judicial reform in 2012.

"Some courts have not done well in improving transparency of court affairs and promoting a democratic judicial system," Wang said in delivering the report to an audience that included China's top leaders.

He criticized some judges for poor working styles that delayed hearings, adding that a small number of judges were found to have taken bribes.

This year, the Supreme Court will work to reform court procedures to speed up proceedings of civil cases involving small sums of money, and improve rules allowing citizens to observe trials, he said.

How much Wang's call translates into action is not known. China's courts do not operate independently of the ruling Communist Party. Politically sensitive and high-profile cases are often decided behind the scenes by special committees. And legal reformers say the current government of President Hu Jintao has undermined rule of law by promoting a campaign that says the party and people's interests must be placed above the letter of the law.

The public and media are often kept out of the courts, especially for any sort of politically sensitive trial, and lawyers representing human rights activists and others who have upset the government often complain that basic defense rights are ignored.

Wang said courts should make more efforts in accepting supervision from the general public, including soliciting opinions from the public and giving more heed to media reports.

Wang said that in 2011, 77 judges and court staff were prosecuted for embezzlement, bribery or other crimes connected to their work, a 30 percent drop from the year before.

Wang said Chinese courts concluded 69,000 cases covering major crimes, including homicide, kidnapping, planting bombs and human trafficking, sending about 105,000 criminals to jail.

The Supreme Court must sign off on all death sentences handed down by lower-level courts, but, as in previous reports, Wang did not give a figure for the number of executions in China last year. Official statistics on executions are considered state secrets, but the U.S.-based human rights group Dui Hua Foundation estimates that China put 5,000 people to death in 2009.

Wang said the Supreme Court examined more than 11,800 cases in 2011, down 1.8 percent from the previous year. Local courts at various levels heard more than 12.2 million cases, an increase of 4.4 percent from 2010.

In a separate report to the congress, top prosecutor Cao Jianming said prosecutors will focus on maintaining "social harmony and stability" by cracking down on "overthrowing, and infiltrating activities by foreign and domestic hostile forces."

The terms refer to overseas groups, including supporters of exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, who China accuses of inciting unrest in minority areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang in the far west. Both areas have experienced violent protests in recent years.