Lawyer's trial has legal fraternity riveted

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2011, 12:00am


Defence lawyer Li Zhuang faced his second trial in Chongqing yesterday for coaching a witness in a case that legal professionals say tests the country's commitment to the rule of law and will deal a lethal blow to the country's system of jurisprudence if procedures are not properly followed.

Dubbed 'season two of the Li Zhuang saga', the Jiangbei District People's Court heard evidence yesterday about Li's involvement in a 2008 embezzlement case in Shanghai. According to prosecutors, Li coached witness Xu Lijun to say that the money she had given to the defendant was a loan, not an investment, and so the defendant could have used it freely without it being considered embezzlement.

About 115 people had been allowed to attend the open trial, mainland media reported, including Li's family members, reporters and representatives of the People's Congress and Political Consultative Conferences.

The trial adjourned last night and continues today, but in academic circles and on the web, one of the biggest legal debates in recent years rages on. While many lawyers are unwilling to comment on Li's alleged guilt, they are highly concerned that this second trial adhere to the principles of procedural justice.

A team comprising the country's top criminal law professors and professionals have volunteered to advise on defence strategy. They include two respected 80-year-old professors - Jiang Ping and Zhang Sizhi. The latter was the defence lawyer for the Gang of Four.

'It's obviously important to the crackdown on the triads, but in order to cure the problem fundamentally, we should perfect our systems, so the government must administer according to the law to ensure judicial justice,' constitutional law professor He Weifang wrote in an open letter to Chongqing authorities last week. He called Li's trial a dangerous reminder of the Cultural Revolution.

Li was convicted of tampering with evidence in February last year during his defence of Chongqing crime boss Gong Gangmo, at the height of the municipality's anti-triad crackdown. He was due to be released in June, but Chongqing authorities announced at the end of last month that complaints against Li had been made and that he would face more charges.

The case of Li Zhuang was marked by unusual twists from the very start. Li was turned in by his own client, Gong, who said Li had coached him to claim he had been tortured by police. From the day Li was arrested to the day he was convicted upon appeal, two months passed - atypical given China's judicial efficiency.

Li was convicted based on indirect evidence, as none of the seven prosecution witnesses showed up. And while Li maintained his innocence during the trial, he suddenly admitted guilt at the opening of the appeal hearing. Then, when the appellate court announced that his sentence had been reduced by a year to 1 1/2 years, Li shouted that he had been coerced into admitting guilt by Chongqing's judicial officials.

They promised that he would be given a suspended sentence, he said.

The case also raised fundamental questions about controversial clause 306 of the country's criminal code, which holds a lawyer liable for the change in testimony of a defendant or witness and is the clause Li was charged under. Many lawyers have long urged that the clause be abolished, saying that it fundamentally hampers a defence lawyer's work.

'If lawyers are jailed for just doing their job in collecting evidence and defending their clients ... then who would dare to be a lawyer? And who would trust a lawyer,' lawyer Wu Lixia wrote on the net.