Unjust case of lawyer Pu Zhiqiang will in the end undermine China’s judicial reform

Margaret Lewis says the Chinese government’s use of the criminal justice system to silence its critics, as with the case of human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, will only jeopardise China’s judicial development

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 December, 2015, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 December, 2015, 5:02pm

According to the “100-1=0 principle”, as advocated by President Xi Jinping (習近平), the negative influence of one miscarriage of justice is sufficient to destroy the accumulated goodwill of 99 justly decided cases. Attention turned on Monday to a single case in a Beijing courtroom: lawyer Pu Zhiqiang’s trial for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” through comments on his microblog. Chinese authorities have detained the renowned civil rights lawyer since May last year.

The growing pains of a changing legal system are qualitatively different from the government’s decision to use the system as a means of silencing dissenting voices

Pu’s case is far from a typical criminal case. Yet even a small number of politically motivated prosecutions can, following from Xi’s view on unfair rulings, destroy the accumulated goodwill of 99 justly decided ones.

Selective prosecution of lawyers who peacefully use the legal system to defend citizens’ rights undermines the substantial progress that China has made to many aspects of its criminal justice system. In recent years, China has decreased its use of the death penalty, introduced procedures aimed at increasing the number of people released on bail, and expanded videotaping of interrogations in an effort to decrease coerced confessions.

READ MORE: Sarcasm and ‘abusive language’: the remarks that led China to rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang’s arrest

READ MORE: China needs checks and balances to protect lawyers’ rights, say experts

China is undertaking a sizeable basket of reforms, and a sudden, comprehensive overhaul of the criminal justice system is impossible. The growing pains of a changing legal system, however, are qualitatively different from the government’s decision to use the system as a means of silencing dissenting voices.

Pu’s trial follows on the heels of the UN Committee against Torture’s release of its “concluding observations” following a review of China’s compliance with the convention against torture. Among the numerous issues raised were prolonged pre-trial detention, prosecution based on broadly defined offences, and the crackdown on defence lawyers, all of which directly apply to Pu’s case.

The timing of Pu’s trial has caused speculation that the court may issue the verdict around Christmas when international attention is diverted by the holiday. An acquittal is virtually impossible in light of China’s nearly 100 per cent conviction rate.

Despite the party’s call in a major policy document last year to “make the people feel fairness and justice in every judicial case”, even a miracle acquittal would not erase the injustice of Pu’s 18-month detention. At best, Pu can hope for prompt release based on his time already served in detention or some form of medical release in light of his health conditions. Whatever the eventual verdict, its significance will reverberate as an indication of the health of China’s criminal justice system.

Margaret Lewis is a professor of law at Seton Hall University, New Jersey, US