Justice system guilty of delay on reforms

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 April, 2005, 12:00am

The sad case of She Xianglin is the mainland's criminal justice system in microcosm. Mr She has served 11 years in prison for killing his wife. The supposed murder victim, however, recently returned to the town where she once lived with him.

After being convicted and sentenced to death on flawed evidence and the hearsay of his wife's relatives - and a confession he alleges was forced out of him after 10 days of torture and sleep deprivation - Mr She is now free.

But the criminal justice system that helped put him behind bars for more than a decade for a murder he did not commit cannot be let off so easily.

Changes in 1996 introduced into the mainland criminal code the presumption of innocence and guaranteed legal representation for criminal defendants. They also outlawed torture and threats as a means of extracting admissions of guilt.

However, these reforms have not done much to lower the exceedingly high conviction rate of more than 99 per cent. Nor have police and prosecutors taken adequate steps in the direction of protecting defendants' rights. Forced confessions and denial of access to lawyers remain all too common.

When guilt is not clearly established, the preference is for a lighter sentence, not acquittal, as evidenced by the reduction of Mr She's death sentence to 15 years' imprisonment.

The release of this wrongly convicted man comes shortly after a similar case in Hebei province captured national headlines. Almost a decade after 21-year-old Nie Shubin was executed for the rape and murder of a fellow villager, someone else stepped forward and confessed.

Both cases are in the spotlight as the government prepares judicial reforms. The central proposal is likely to be that only the highest court will be allowed to review and confirm death penalty cases.

This could go some way towards reducing political interference in such decisions, as the Supreme Court is believed to be more independent. It can only be hoped that this reform will prevent new miscarriages of justice, as seen in the She and Nie cases. Other proposals being debated among academics and advocates include cutting by half the dozens of crimes subject to capital punishment.

Such changes would be welcomed, yet the worst abuses of the system can be curbed by simply delivering on the promises made in 1996: access to lawyers, freedom from police torture, and fair trials with no assumption of guilt.

Some progress has been made in recent years, including the establishment of almost 3,000 legal aid centres. But the lawyers being trained to staff these centres will have little impact unless there is a more thorough change in how the police and courts operate.

The tragedy of She Xianglin's lost years of freedom shows there is much more work to be done.