China's top court has ruled out forced confessions and vowed to reduce miscarriage of justice, in a move that highlights increasing policy emphasis on legal reform.
The directive, issued by China's Supreme People's Court on Thursday, is intended to strengthen the rule of law in a system that many analysts agree still lacks basic elements of judicial independence.
The court says that all levels of the judiciary are required to perform their duties strictly according to the law, base their judgments on facts, and protect human rights. It lists 27 provisions, including the protection of defendants' right of attorney, the need for trials to be open and based on legally obtained evidence, and the elimination of confessions obtained through torture.
Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch says the ruling is an encouraging sign that the government is responding to pressure from society demanding better rights protection during criminal trials.
“It gives a foothold to lawyers and legal reformers in China, it helps them put pressure on the police, on the courts, on the judicial system whenever they don't act accordingly,” he says.
In recent years, China has introduced procedural mechanisms to guarantee defendants fair trials, including an amendment last year requiring police to allow lawyers to meet with their client within 48 hours after a request is filed. Thursday's court ruling is a step in that same direction - analysts say - in a system plagued by endemic problems of obtaining confessions through torture, wrongful convictions and persecution of lawyers.
Police remain powerful
But rights advocates say that despite court reforms, the powerful police in China still make the justice system unfair. In a recent case, a Chinese official under investigation for corruption was tortured to death and drowned in a bathtub as police investigators were trying to break him into confession.
Bequelin of Human Rights Watch says that given that courts in China are often subservient to police departments, there are limits to what the courts - such as with Thursday's provisions - can achieve. “It is all well for the courts to say 'oh, we are going to make sure we reduce wrongful convictions and torture,' but the fact is they have very little leverage to do that because it is basically the police that are driving the criminal system in China,” he says.
Call for review of past cases
Li Zhuang, a criminal lawyer based in Beijing, says that to prove they are serious in implementing the documents, courts should start reviewing past cases where lawyers have presented proof of coerced testimony.
Li Zhuang was one of the lawyers targeted in a campaign against mafia in Chongqing, then the stronghold of now ousted politician Bo Xilai. Li was charged with perjury after attempting to defend a local entrepreneur whose confession had been obtained through torture.
Li confessed wrongdoing and was sentenced to 18 months in jail. “Contesting evidence has been provided that sufficiently overthrows that judgment, but it has been more than two years and there has been no review,” Li says. “We have to wait and see whether these provisions will be implemented on the ground. That is the next step.” Li says there is little incentive for court officials to review cases because in many instances they have based career promotions on wrongful convictions.
In Chongqing, some of the city's wealthiest entrepreneurs were put to jail based on confessions obtained through illegal means, and their assets were seized by the city government. “Many assets seized during the campaign have been spent," Li says. They used them to plant trees and organize red songs revivals. How can you give back money that has already been spent?”
Evolution of judicial reforms
The Supreme Court's ruling comes days after China wrapped up an important party meeting and announced key reforms in a number of fields, including its legal system. After much public pressure, party leaders pledged to scrap the system of re-education through labor - a notorious practice of administrative detention that gives the police rights to bypass courts and detain suspects without trial for up to three years.
Such amendments have been welcomed by legal scholars and professionals in China, but some believe that individual measures will be meaningless if they do not ensure independence of the legal system - which in China is still to a great extent under the yoke of the party and the public security apparatus.