By Shannon Najmabadi
The vice president of the Supreme People’s Court, Shen Deyong, made news last week when he told lower-level courts to… do their job.
In a radical departure from typical judicial practice, Shen said that courts of all levels in China “should prevent unjust or wrong verdicts in criminal cases”.
To defend his statement, Shen said:
Criminal trials concern life and death, as well as citizens’ reputations, properties and freedom. Trial decisions impact state security and social stability, he said at a seminar held in Guangzhou City, capital of south China’s Guangdong Province.
He advised court staff to resolve criminal cases using innovative concepts such as depending on established “legal procedures and systems,” cooperating with public security departments, and respecting the rights of defendants and their counsels.
Shen used multiple adjectives – among them, “rational”, “professional”, and “sincere” – to describe counsels and emphasize their importance.
These suggestions seem to be what most citizens would hope to expect when being served justice in a courtroom. Indeed, Shen’s statements align with the basic principles of nearly all judicial systems worldwide.
Perhaps sadly, however, his words may actually be necessary – especially in light of a recent case in which two men, wrongly accused of rape, were released from jail after ten years of mistreatment.
In March, a provincial east China court reversed a 2004 ruling that had slapped one man with a death sentence with two-year reprieve and the other with a 15-year prison term. The two men, Zhang Hui and his uncle Zhang Gaoping, were accused of raping a woman in Hangzhou but were acquitted when new evidence, indicating another suspect, was brought forward. The suspect, whose DNA was shown to match the DNA collected from the victim’s body, was already serving prison time for a separate case.
While Xinhua’s March story noted that “the Zhangs were not immediately available for interviews”, the acquitted men spoke – in graphic detail – to US media the following month.
A Washington Post story, published in April, led with the sentence “The words were beaten out of them.” The paragraphs that followed were equally unsubtle in acknowledging injustice not just in that case, but in China’s legal system at large.
By the time Zhang Gaoping and his nephew confessed to the rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl, the men say their bodies had been pummeled. Their prison tormenters stubbed out cigarettes on Zhang’s arms, poured water down his nose and kept him awake in a half-crouch with almost no food for seven days and nights.
In a nice gesture that acknowledges, but perhaps does not repay, the Zhangs for their ten years in prison, the Post said that when the men were released, justice officials present in court apologized and bowed to them. The Post noted that it was unusual that the Chinese government admitted fault in the case and commented on the practice of forced confessions – a salient issue in criminal cases tried in Chinese courts.
Later, through a court spokesman, officials acknowledged to reporters that their conviction appears to have been based on confessions that were coerced with violence and threats.
Reached by phone in their poor village in Anhui province in southern China, the uncle, now balding at 48, and nephew, 37, declined to talk to foreign media for fear of upsetting legal authorities who are sensitive to criticism abroad. Those authorities are still deciding whether to compensate the men for their decade in prison.
More than one million people are sentenced in criminal cases in China each year – 99-percent are convicted. Confessions – which are often forced, experts say – are authorities’ most common piece of “evidence”.