Testing times

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 April, 2008, 12:00am

May 8, 2004, the day Chen Ran married her American sweetheart Michael Rolufs, was a beautiful spring day in the village of Rum, near Innsbruck in the Austrian Alps. Ms Chen's father, Wo Weihan , gave a speech congratulating the newlyweds.

'He said he was happy I was marrying Michael,' said Ms Chen, now 30, a delicate-looking woman whose expression these days is permanently strained. Wo could see the couple were loving and happy. He told Ms Chen she had made a good choice.

It was the last time Ms Chen saw her father a free man.

In April 2005 Ms Chen called the mainland and learned terrifying news: Wo, now 59, a scientist with his own successful biomedical company, had been arrested on suspicion of spying for Taiwan. Ms Chen was

not to see her father again until November 2006, by which time Wo had been sentenced to death.

For human rights advocate John Kamm, Wo's case is a test of the government's push to reduce the use of the death penalty. Since January 1 last year all death penalties have had to be reviewed by the Supreme Court. Last year, the first year of implementation, some 15 per cent of convictions were rejected and returned to lower courts for re-sentencing. Mr Kamm says Wo's conviction is unsound; Wo's lawyer reportedly agrees.

'I believe my father is innocent,' said Ms Chen, who moved to Germany aged 11 with her family, then to Austria two years later. She became an Austrian citizen in 2001. By then her parents had divorced and her father had returned to the mainland to set up the Beijing Wohua Macro-molecular Research Company. 'I don't have any memories that could connect his life to these allegations and crimes. But it's not up to me to determine his innocence; it's up to the court and the justice system to give him a fair trial.'

Ms Chen and human rights advocates say Wo did not receive a fair hearing. For one, Wo only saw a lawyer one year after he was taken into custody, after the Ministry of State Security had completed its investigation and determined his guilt. 'That's what angers me the most - that they only let the lawyer in to see him after they had the whole case against him worked out,' Ms Chen said.

The government says Wo, a civilian, confessed to passing military secrets to Taiwan and implicated another man also sentenced to death. Wo was also charged with joining a pro-Taiwan political group under an alias while in Germany in 1989.

At the end of March the Beijing Higher Court, in a closed session, confirmed the death penalty on appeal. Wo is in a police hospital after suffering a stroke in detention in February 2005. On Tuesday his lawyer was asked to supply documentation - a sign the Supreme Court is ready to begin a mandatory review of his death penalty. 'This is the last hope,' Ms Chen said.

Announcing the policy change in early 2007, former Supreme Court president Xiao Yang said execution should only apply to 'especially serious or vile cases'. Opponents of the death penalty welcomed the review, calling it one of the most significant developments in human rights on the mainland since the reform and opening up period began in 1978.

Exact figures are a secret, but a report by Xinhua last year said there were 8,000 executions in 2006. After the top court began reviewing cases, 5,000 to 6,000 executions took place, said Mr Kamm, executive director of the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation.

He praised President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao for the death penalty review, calling it 'a considerable achievement'.

Mr Kamm said the charges against Wo were flawed. The businessman-turned-lobbyist has added the case to the list of 70 to 100 that he regularly presents to Beijing.

'What I'm most worried about are three things: one, the vagueness of the verdict; two, the seriousness of the verdict compared to those for similar crimes,' he said - contrasting it with the five-year jail sentence meted out to Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong for spying for Taiwan - 'and thirdly, the essentially unsafe nature of the conviction'.

Although Mr Kamm cannot be sure because Wo's lawyer is prohibited from discussing the case and his family has not met him in more than three years, he believes: 'This was a case where we had two people both implicating each other, and both ended up getting the death penalty. There's something wrong with that. This case raises serious questions in my mind.'

It is rare to be able to put a face to the mainland's many death penalty cases, since the families are almost always too afraid to speak out. But Mr Kamm said: 'We have a human face to go with this case. Wo is a test case. This is the human face of the reform, so obviously if he is executed the message is that you can be executed for something that is not clear, that is opaque, not transparent.

'Based on my dealings, I am mildly optimistic and extremely hopeful that the Supreme Court will show that this review works, and produce more just results. I would be very disappointed if the two individuals are executed.'

Although Wo was charged with divulging eight 'top secrets', only two were named in the verdict. One of those, evidence point No9, states Wo 'might have' talked about the health of senior leaders to a witness for the prosecution. From this the court found Wo guilty of passing top secret information to the Taiwanese.

He was also found guilty of supplying a Taiwanese spy ring with technical drawings of precision missile equipment.

'They said that he took information from a classified magazine, but that magazine is available in the library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences,' Ms Chen said. 'How can something that is classified information be available on a library shelf? My father even signed in when he went to read in the library.'

Ms Chen said her father, 'a devoted scientist', did not move in such exalted political circles that

he would have known more than normal gossip about leaders' health.

Wo's lawyer has declined to talk to the media since the case involves state secrets. But she reportedly believes the evidence against Wo is insufficient, pointing to Mr Xiao's order last year that if any doubt remains, the death penalty should not apply.

Mr Kamm said the case was puzzling. He said he suspected - as in other high-profile spying convictions - that the real truth may be very different. 'We have the verdict but do we really know what happened? I doubt it,' he said.

So far, diplomatic representations by the Austrian government have gone unanswered by Beijing. Wo has an unlimited Austrian residence permit, even though he is not an Austrian citizen. He refused to change his nationality 'because he is a patriot, he loves China', Ms Chen said.

Given United Nations reports stating that torture on the mainland is endemic, Ms Chen is worried

that her father may have been inhumanely treated, especially during the first year of detention, when he had no legal counsel. His stroke, on February 6, 2005, came after 21/2 weeks of detention and prolonged questioning. Mr Kamm said that many death penalty rejections by the Supreme

Court were because of coerced confessions. The government has also called for a reduction in torture by police and interrogators.

There are other elements that puzzle Mr Kamm. Wo was sent home to recuperate in February 2005 after an emergency operation, under orders not to leave Beijing. 'What kind of 'most serious and vile' case is allowed to go home from detention for seven weeks?' asked Mr Kamm, adding: 'Would they send a murderer home? No, they would not.'

Although executions are dropping, figures compiled by Dui Hua show that the number of arrests for 'endangering state security', or espionage, are rising fast. There were about 300 cases in 2005, but 742 last year.

Mr Kamm said Wo may be a victim of cross-strait relations, pointing out that the time of his arrest, early 2005, was a tense time.

But he said that, with the Kuomintang, Beijing's favoured party, having won Taiwan's recent presidential election, executing Wo would send the wrong message to Taiwan.

Ms Chen's life since that phone call in 2005 has been a nightmare. 'Everything is on hold,' she said. 'Say, having children. We can't decide on that now.'

Sitting next to Ms Chen, her husband, Mr Rolufs, 36, recounted how a friend told him recently: 'Michael, you have to see that your wife smiles again.' As he reached out to stroke his wife's hair they both began to cry.

For Ms Chen, her father's devastating arrest has dramatically altered the way she views China, her place of birth.

As an expatriate Chinese in Austria, she used to defend China when people criticised its human rights record and other faults. 'I used to say we had to give China time, that things were changing for the better,' she said. 'I still have hope. I don't want to give up on my father as it's my responsibility as a daughter to do whatever I can to change the situation.'

But the strain of waiting for his execution and hoping for a reprieve is causing her insomnia and deep grief. 'I don't know if I should prepare myself for a disaster in the next couple of days, or a few months,' she said. 'I just don't know.'