Evidence obtained illegally - such as through torture during interrogation - cannot be used in testimony, particularly in cases involving the death penalty, according to two regulations issued on Sunday.
A death sentence should be pronounced only with sufficient evidence acquired through legal means, stipulate the two regulations: One on evidence review in death sentence cases, and the other on excluding illegal evidence in criminal cases.
Jointly issued by the top court, the top procuratorate, the ministries of public security, state security and justice, they are the first specific rules on collection of evidence and review in criminal cases.
The first regulation sets out principles and rules for scrutinizing and gauging evidence in cases involving the death penalty, and the other sets out detailed procedure for examining evidence and for excluding evidence obtained illegally.
They are expected to cut down on death sentences and reduce forced confessions, experts said.
The regulations make it clear that evidence with unclear origin, confessions obtained through torture, or testimony obtained through violence and intimidation are invalid, particularly in death sentences.
"Not a single mistake is allowed in fact finding and collection of evidence in cases involving the death sentence," said a written Q&A released by the five central departments on Sunday.
The new regulations define illegal evidence and include specific procedures on how to exclude such evidence.
Lu Guanglun, a senior judge at the Supreme People's Court, said such details do not exist in the Criminal Procedure Law and its judicial interpretations.
"This is the first time that a systematic and clear regulation tells law enforcers that evidence obtained through illegal means is not only illegal but also useless," said Zhao Bingzhi, dean of the law school at Beijing Normal University.
"Previously we could only infer from abstract laws that illegal evidence is not allowed. But in reality, in many cases, such evidence was considered valid," he said.
"This is big progress, both for the legal system and for better protection of human rights," he said. "It will help reduce the number of executions".
Zhao said the new rules will also help change the mindset of law enforcers and reduce torture in interrogation, one of the causes of wrongful sentences.
Ever since the top court started reviewing all death sentences in 2007, the overall quality of handling criminal cases has improved, but a lot of problems still remain, the joint Q&A said.
In 2008, the top court announced that about 15 percent of death sentence verdicts by lower courts in 2007 were found to have faults.
On May 20, Zhou Yongkang, secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Political and Legislative Committee, said at a meeting that "the criminal legal system should be perfected and law enforcers should improve their capability to ensure that every case handled can stand the test of law and time". Lu at the top court said the new rules will help prevent wrongful convictions like the one in which an innocent villager in Henan province was wrongly prosecuted.
The case of Zhao Zuohai, who stayed behind bars for 11 years until the man he allegedly murdered turned up alive on April 30, has attracted national attention and triggered public criticism of judicial officers after Zhao said he was tortured by local police to confess.
Three former police officers have been arrested for allegedly torturing Zhao.
"Such cases seriously undermine the image of China's justice system and people's trust in the government," said Bian Jianlin, a law professor at China University of Political Science and Law.