By Sui-Lee Wee and Li Hui
BEIJING (Reuters) - China has curtailed the power of the ruling Communist Party's Political and Legal Committee, a secretive body overseeing the security services, to interfere in most legal cases, scholars with knowledge of the situation said - a significant reform at a time of public discontent over miscarriages of justice.
The move, which has not been made public by the party but has been announced in internal meetings, would clip the wings of the party's highest authority on judicial and security matters.
Interference from the committee has led to wrongful convictions, many of which have been widely reported in the press and even highlighted by President Xi Jinping as an issue that needs to be urgently addressed.
Part of a package of legal reforms, the move signals a willingness by Xi's government to reform its court system as long as it doesn't threaten the party's overall control.
But the party would still have final say over politically sensitive cases such as those involving ethnic issues and senior politicians - like the disgraced former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, who was last year found guilty of bribery, corruption and abuse of power, and jailed for life - and would use the courts to convict citizens who challenge its authority.
In his first work report to parliament on Monday, China's top judge, Zhou Qiang, said his courts must improve their ability to exercise judicial power independently, admitting to miscarriages of justice and abuse of power by some officers.
"Perfect the work mechanism of preventing and correcting injustices. (We) must not allow law enforcers to cause miscarriages of justice. Protect the innocent from being held responsible," said Zhou, head of the Supreme People's Court.
He said his courts will severely punish crimes that endanger national security, including terrorism, step up their efforts to punish corruption, and "actively and steadily push forward the reform of the judiciary."
Chen Guangzhong, who took part in discussions with officials on reforming the criminal law system after the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, said he has seen an internal document saying "there can be no coordination allowed on cases".
Judges typically convene with police, prosecutors and officials from the Political and Legal Committee to coordinate on verdicts for cases that will have a "political influence" or relate to social stability. These offences range from murder to rape to corruption.
"This is a problem unique to China," Chen, a law professor from the China University of Political Science and Law, told Reuters. "If ruling parties in the West interfere with the judiciary, if they intervene, they'll have to step down. But the recognition of this problem has not been consistent."
Chen, who helped draft the latest amendment to China's Criminal Procedure Code in 2012, said the party has started to curtail the power of the Political and Legal Committee, but added there are few details to this guideline.
Meng Jianzhu, head of the Political and Legal Committee, had said at an internal meeting that officials "are not allowed to intervene in specific cases", said Jiang Ming'an, a law professor at Peking University, citing people at that meeting.
Jiang, who was at a meeting with the prosecutor's office, said the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China's graft watchdog, will also not be allowed to intervene in corruption cases once they are transferred to state prosecutors.
Chinese courts convicted 31,000 people last year for embezzlement, bribery and breach of duty, including Bo and former railways minister, Liu Zhijun, Zhou said.
The Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
PARTY ABOVE CONSTITUTION
Much of the previous abuses to the rule of law can be attributed to former security chief Zhou Yongkang, whose term "caused a big setback to the judicial system", said Jiang Ping, a deputy director of the National People's Congress Law Committee from 1988-1993.
Zhou had expanded his role into one of the most powerful and controversial fiefdoms in the one-party government. During his term, Zhou said the courts should put the party's interests above the people and the constitution, according to Jiang Ping.
"That caused tremendous chaos to the judiciary because putting the party's interests above everything else meant that everything had to be in obedience to the Political and Legal Committee," Jiang Ping said.
Scholars say the downgrading of the position previously occupied by Zhou, who was a former member of the party's ruling inner core Politburo Standing Committee, in late 2012 is another sign of the weaker powers of the Political and Legal Committee. His successor, Meng, is only a member of the Politburo, the 25-member body which reports to the Standing Committee.
Sources have told Reuters that Zhou is under effective house arrest while the party investigates corruption allegations against him.
FEWER DEATH PENALTY CRIMES
In a sign of the government's interest in legal reform, the Supreme People's Court said in November it would eliminate the use of torture to extract confessions, stop local officials from interfering in legal decisions and allow judges to make their own decisions.
China is now debating trimming the number of crimes subject to the death penalty, according to officials and scholars.
Rights groups say China uses capital punishment more than any other country, raising public concern of irreversible miscarriages of justice.
Various government departments are "actively studying" reducing the number of crimes that carry the death penalty, Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong told reporters during the Australia-China Human Rights Dialogue last month. Chen from the China University of Political Science and Law said the government is holding discussions with legal scholars as part of this review.
But Chen said several officials in the courts, prosecutors and the police are resisting the changes to the death penalty. He said an announcement on dropping the death penalty for up to half a dozen "non-violent" crimes could be due this year.
Capital punishment applies to 55 offences in China, including fraud and illegal money-lending.
China won't, however, scrap the death penalty for those found guilty of corruption, which the government is waging a renewed campaign against, Chen said. "China now has some major corruption cases, and (if the government) were to scrap the death penalty, the ordinary people will not agree."
China guards the number of people executed every year as state secrets. The San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, which seeks the release of political prisoners in China, estimates that 3,000 people were executed in 2012. For comparison, 43 people were executed that year in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
The changes to the death penalty crimes are not expected to significantly reduce the number of executions in China, said Fu Hualing, a professor of China's criminal justice system at the University of Hong Kong.
NEW COURT CHIEF
The legal reforms reflect a desire by Zhou Qiang, who took over as head of the Supreme People's Court a year ago, to handle cases more professionally, and tackle wrongful convictions, scholars said. But whether his reform efforts can move China forward to a country that is ruled by law is still an open question.
"Zhou Qiang seems a serious political character, he's not only well connected, he's legally sophisticated," said Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University. "But he's not all-powerful, and whatever he says doesn't necessarily take place at the local level. This is a continuing struggle."
Eva Pils, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said "the biggest concern about the judiciary remains that it is a weak institution compared to the Party-State security apparatus," as well as the public security ministry.
Judges are still appointed by the party and the government has been silent on establishing an independent judiciary.
"There's now no mention of judicial independence, we haven't reached that stage yet," said Jiang Ming'an, the Peking University law professor who has participated in consultations with Zhou Qiang on judicial reform.
Changes to the judicial system will be constrained by the lack of political reform such as greater room for freedom of expression, said Jiang Ping, the former deputy director of the National People's Congress Law Committee.
"Because the judicial system is tied to the political system, if there is no real political reform, the reforms to the judicial system cannot be fully realized," he said.
(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)