China's legislature on Tuesday barred all but the nation's highest court from approving death sentences, a move that state media called the country's biggest change to capital punishment in more than 20 years.

China is believed to account for most of the world's court-ordered executions, putting to death hundreds of people a year for crimes ranging from murder to such nonviolent offenses as tax evasion. Human rights groups have been protesting what they call miscarriages of justice and the extensive, arbitrary use of capital punishment.

The change, which will take effect on Jan. 1, 2007, "is believed to be the most important reform of capital punishment in China in more than two decades," the official Xinhua News Agency said.

The Supreme People's Court announced last year it would start reviewing death sentences, ending a 23-year-old practice of allowing provincial courts to have final review. In June, state media said the court had begun hiring dozens of judges for the task.

Complaints have been rife in recent years that lower-level courts were mishandling death penalty cases.

"It's great news. This is a big step forward for China's legal system and human rights," said Li Heping, a prominent Chinese activist lawyer. "I think the purpose of allowing the Supreme Court to make the final decision is so that China can control the total number of death penalties and create an atmosphere of humanitarianism."

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The government does not release comprehensive figures on executions but Amnesty International estimated in its 2005 report that at least 1,770 Chinese were executed that year. The total was believed to be much higher. At least 2,148 people were executed around the world last year, with 60 executions in the United States, the Amnesty report said.

Tuesday's amendment "deprives the provincial people's courts of the final say on issuing death sentences," Xinhua said. "Death penalties handed out by provincial courts must be reviewed and ratified by the Supreme People's Court."

Xiao Yang, the court's president, said it was "an important procedural step to prevent wrongful convictions."

"It will also give the defendants in death sentence cases one more chance to have their opinions heard," Xiao was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

Last year, a woman believed to have been murdered in the 1980s in the central province of Hunan reappeared alive, 16 years after the man convicted of killing her was executed.

At the time of the execution, state media reported that the court said the defendant had confessed. But Chinese police often are accused of torturing suspects into making confessions.

The high court itself also has been involved in controversial death penalty decisions.

In December 2003, a purported gang boss who said he was tortured into confessing to corruption charges was executed in the northeastern city of Shenyang in an anti-graft crackdown.

A provincial court had issued a reprieve, citing the possibility that the torture claims might be true, but the Supreme People's Court overruled that decision and ordered his immediate death.