BEIJING — The top judicial and law enforcement bodies in China have issued new guidelines that seek to halt the use of torture in obtaining confessions or witness testimony, especially in death penalty cases.

The rules, announced Sunday, would nullify evidence gathered through violence or intimidation and give defendants the ability to challenge confessions presented during their trials.

The new regulations were issued weeks after the authorities conceded that the confession used to erroneously convict a farmer for a murder was based on torture. The case came to light only after the supposed victim turned up alive and the defendant had spent 10 years in prison. It has provoked national outrage.

“Judicial practice in recent years shows that slack and improper methods have been used to gather, examine and exclude evidence in various cases, especially those involving the death penalty,” said a statement released by the central government.

Although such provisions are a basic feature of modern criminal codes, legal experts said it was the first time Chinese law has explicitly spelled out rules for the admissibility of prosecutorial evidence.

Confessions gained through torture are thought to be common in China, though rights advocates and defense lawyers say such mistreatment gains public notice only when a defendant dies in custody. In some recent cases, jailhouse deaths have spurred protests and alarmed the authorities, who are eager to maintain social stability.

In a rare admission of the problem, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, which carries out investigations and prosecutions, issued a report in 2003 acknowledging that what it characterized as forced confessions had led to the deaths of 460 people and serious injuries for 117 others.

The stakes are high in China, which puts to death more people than all other countries combined. The government does not release figures on executions, but Amnesty International estimates more than 1,700 last year.

Lawyers and legal scholars praised the new regulations, which are part of a larger package of legal reforms that have been in the works for years, but have been stalled by powerful interests within the country’s public security apparatus.

“They have come just in time because the necessity is so great,” said Zhang Xingshui, a defense lawyer. “It is a good cure for loopholes, because legal workers are often under so much pressure to get cases closed no matter what it takes.”

Several lawyers said that they were curious to see the extent to which the regulations would be carried out, pointing out that China often fails to abide by its own rules and regulations.

The larger problem, legal experts say, is the disconnect between China’s stated desire for the rule of law and the Communist Party’s insistence that the judicial system serve the party.

When it comes to criminal justice, the Ministry of Public Security and Supreme People’s Procuratorate are often averse to measures that might limit their powers. After a previous round of legal revisions in 2007, for example, prosecutors refused to allow lawyers to meet with clients accused of violating state-secrets laws, a hazy designation that is often used against dissidents.

Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, called the new guidelines a welcome step, but said that they were weak medicine for an ailing criminal justice system.

“I think the government has abandoned any ambition of carrying out systemic reform and instead has adopted an approach where it aims at marginal procedural improvements,” he said.

Cui Min, a professor at Chinese People’s Public Security University, was somewhat more optimistic. One important element of the regulations, he noted, requires the police to testify in court if they are accused of using torture to extract a confession.

“This may be common practice for police in the West or in Hong Kong, but it is a new thing for Chinese policemen to testify in court,” he said. “We have to cultivate a new mindset, one that accepts the idea of possibly setting free a criminal over wrongfully convicting an innocent man.”


Zhang Jing contributed research.