Senior Chinese judges speak out on preventing injustices in China’s criminal justice system

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Confess quickly!

Although the Human Rights Watch report on the use of torture in the Chinese criminal justice system is capturing the attention of the media outside of China (and overshadowing a forthcoming report of an investigation done by the China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL) on the same subject), the report that may be more persuasive to the Supreme People’s Court (Court) in reducing injustices in China’s criminal justice system is one coming out of a symposium held recently in Henan Province.

The symposium on mistaken cases and “hearing centered criminal procedures”was sponsored by the Henan Higher People’s Court and CUPL,  Participants at the symposium included the president of the Henan Higher People’s Court (Zhang Liyong), the head of the #5 criminal division of the Court (Gao Guijun), several leading academics, including one from the Communist Youth League’s training school, and two from the legal press (Legal Daily and the People’s Court Daily). The detailed report from which this blogpost is taken was published in the Court’s media outlets, and a more abbreviated version on the Central Political Legal Committee’s websites).

The criminal prosecution of senior management of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)’s Chinese subsidiary and many other lower profile cases (such as this one about a Swedish teenager) serve as a reminder that criminal justice issues are relevant to the (foreign) business as well as the human rights community.

The comments from the participants were fairly consistent.  Those from the judges who participated are particularly significant, because their remarks reflect reforms set out in the 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan that may be eventually implemented and they are the ones who can advocate directly these points in internal discussions with other participants in the criminal justice system.

Judge Zhang Liyong, President of the Henan Higher People’s Court

Judge Gao Guijun, head of the #5 Criminal Division of the Court

Comments from the judges

  • Put substance into trial procedure by requiring witnesses to appear in court and implement the exclusion of illegal evidence;
  • Improve judicial supervision of the investigation process, to ensure that the standard of the investigation process meets the standard at trial.  This comment is liked to an unnoticed phrase in the 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan Outline, which calls for “Improving judicial supervision of judicial (i.e. justice system) measures and investigative methods which limit personal freedom.”   Publications within the court system, such as this detailed study in Chongqing advocating better judicial controls over the investigatory stage) reveal that some judges are looking to Germany and Taiwan for examples in other civil law systems, in which detainees have the right to be brought before a court during the investigation process;
  • More effective curbs must be established on procuratorial authority;
  • Torture still exists to some extent, and measures must be taken to prevent it;
  • The procuratorate and defense must be on an equal footing;
  • The defendant is not a criminal until after sentencing, and he must be allowed to sit with defense counsel;
  • The presumption of innocence in doubtful cases must be implemented (疑罪从无原则).

Comments from the academics

  • The new [pre-trial] detention center law being drafted by the State Council’s Legislative Affairs Office should incorporate obligations on detention center staff to cooperate with courts in reviewing illegal evidence;
  • A system should be established to require criminal investigators to appear in court and for the investigation agencies (public security and procuracy) to provide full recordings of interrogations;
  • The hearing must become the center of proceedings, not the investigation file, and the trial (first instance hearing) is the foundation for preventing miscarriages of justice;
  • There are defects in the system of correcting miscarriages of justice–there should be a system under which a convict can apply for DNA testing, also the standard for exculpatory evidence in re-trials is too high;

Comments from the media:

  • To prevent mistaken cases, media monitoring is needed;
  • News must be made public, to satisfy the public’s right to know;
  • The justice system must be more transparent.

Comment

Implementing many of the recommendations of the participants of the symposium cannot be done solely by the Court.  They will require approval by the political leadership, acting through the Central Committee’s Central Leading Group for Judicial Reform because they relate to other criminal justice institutions.  Because many of the issues raised, such as Improving judicial supervision of the investigation process, instituting an effective system for excluding illegally obtained evidence are part of the 4th Five Year Court Reform Plan Outline, it is likely that progress will be made towards implementing these measures in the next few years, perhaps once the  reforms mandated for the public security authorities have a had measurable impact. The leadership is unlikely to be willing to implement these reforms if it perceives a negative effect on “law and order” and social stability. The rights of a large number of people can potentially be improved if they are.