Beijing must fix loose ends in blind activist's case
For the past two weeks or so blind activist Chen Guangcheng has been living a new life as a law student in America. The Chinese government's swift permission for Chen, his wife and children to leave the country earned leaders some political brownie points - but its efforts should not stop there.
Two things remain to be done. One is an investigation into who was behind the illegal treatment of Chen and his family since 2005. The second is guaranteeing the fair handling of the prosecution of Chen Kegui, the activist's nephew, who was arrested and charged with 'killing with intent' after he waved a knife and injured three officers who barged into his house on April 26 in Linyi , Shandong, after his uncle's escape came to light.
Beijing lawyer Ding Xikui said the last time Chen Kegui's wife heard from him was via text message in the early hours of April 27, when he asked her to help him hire a lawyer. But when Ding and another renowned defence lawyer from Shanghai, Si Weijiang, tried to approach the police bureau in charge of the case, they were told that Chen Kegui had already requested legal aid counsel, so neither Ding nor Si could see him.
Assigning government-friendly lawyers in sensitive cases has become a common tactic for mainland authorities in recent years - even though it is against the spirit of the law, as it strips the defendant of the right to select a lawyer.
In this case, the appointment of a legal aid lawyer is particularly ridiculous because legal aid exists to protect of the rights of defendants who cannot afford a lawyer. It should be granted only when a defendant can't afford a lawyer, rather than be used as an excuse to prevent a defendant hiring a lawyer of his choice.
The charge against Chen Kegui is also trumped up. There is no charge of murder on the mainland; 'killing with intent' is the most severe charge available when it comes to causing physical harm and it doesn't require the victim to be dead. Ding said Chen Kegui was acting in self-defence and that police could have chosen the lesser charge of 'harming with intent' but didn't.
Even if investigations into the abuse and illegal treatment of Chen Guangcheng can't begin immediately, treating Chen Kegui's case fairly and transparently should be relatively easy.
Clearly, Chen Kegui's family wanted to hire Ding and Si as his lawyers. Chen Guangfu - the father of Chen Kegui - told the South China Morning Post yesterday that, around noon, he was given the names of the two legal aid lawyers assigned to his son's case after asking again about them. He then went to their respective law firms in Linyi to confirm whether their appointment was real, and whether they had met his son. Neither lawyer was in.
The father said he still wanted Ding and Si to defend his son. Authorities should follow the law, respect the wishes of the defendant and his family, and grant Chen Kegui access to proper legal representation.
As for investigations, Chen Guangcheng has told the media about a conversation he had with an official from the State Bureau of Letters and Calls in early May, while he was at Chaoyang Hospital in Beijing after leaving the US embassy, where he had sought refuge.
The official promised him a proper investigation into the abuse he and his family had suffered since he exposed forced late-term abortions and sterilisations in Linyi. This reassured Chen that his extended family would be safe if he left the country.
The good news is that, according to Chen Guangfu, dozens of plain-clothes guards finally left the village on Sunday, which he saw as being in line with the government's promise.
Other observers are less optimistic, especially as former Linyi mayor Li Qun, who was in charge of the city between 2000 and 2007, was reappointed party secretary of Qingdao in February and is still conducting business as usual, according to local media. He was also re-elected as a member of the standing committee of the provincial Communist Party in May.
Beijing should not procrastinate on following up Chen Guangcheng's case, as it risks losing the goodwill earned by allowing him to leave.
Even if the central government was truly unaware of the illegal treatment of Chen Guangcheng and his family before his dramatic escape, this excuse no longer holds, as his plight has dominated global headlines for weeks. Any illegal or improper action that continues against Chen's family in Linyi will be blamed on the central government.
While top officials may be busy dealing with the Bo Xilai saga and the upcoming reshuffle at the 18th party congress, it's crucial not to let Chen's case slip away. It's a strong indicator of what kind of society the new leadership is hoping to build: one that abides by the law, or one that permits the lawlessness from which Chen had to escape.