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Expert Predicts China's Rule of Law Will See Little Improvement Before 2008 Olympics


When China won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics, the country's leaders promised to make significant improvements regarding human rights and the rule of law. A leading expert on China's legal system says he expects piecemeal progress, but for the most part, the state of the law in China one year before the Olympics leaves much to be desired. Claudia Blume reports from Hong Kong.

One way China said it would show progress toward implementing the rule of law was by implementing the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that Beijing signed in 1998.

But Jerome Alan Cohen, an expert on China's legal system at New York University, says the prospects for implementation before next year's Olympics are slim.

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong, Cohen said implementation would require too many radical changes, such as the abolishment of China's infamous re-education-through-labor camps.

The police like the camps, where they can send people without waiting for a trial. Cohen says while there is strong support among Chinese legal scholars to do away with the camps, there is even stronger support by the police and the Ministry of Public Security to keep them.

"They worry about political stability, social stability," Cohen said . "This is an important tool for suppressing things that get out of hand. It has been very useful against political dissidents. It has been useful against what they call 'liu mang' - hooligans - and so on. It has been good for anybody you cannot get enough evidence on to convict criminally."

Cohen says even if the camps were outlawed, he is worried the police would pay no attention, and would continue to operate outside the legal system as they often do now.

But he says expects some legal reforms in advance of the Beijing Olympics. He says the Communist Party Congress, meeting in Beijing later this month, is likely to endorse the principle of the presumption of innocence. This principle, that defendants are innocent until proved guilty, is a mainstay of the Western legal system.

Cohen says he also expects the party congress to confirm a supreme court-decision that coerced confessions and illegally seized evidence cannot be used as a basis for convictions.

Cohen says one of the most important developments in China is that the Supreme Court has become an active judicial reformer, for example in trying to reduce the number of death sentences.

"You see, the Supreme Court is facing a situation where for no fewer than 68 offenses you can be given the death sentence in China," Cohen said . "The legislature, for political reasons, is not reducing that number, but the Supreme Court in practice is trying to get the lower courts to use restraint."

The Chinese government says the number of people on death row has been reduced in recent years. Cohen says this is possible, but how many people have been condemned is a closely guarded secret.