Businessman's execution casts doubt over reform

Hopes of judiciary overhaul are now in question after convicted businessman is put to death, unannounced, before his family is notified

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 July, 2013, 5:14am

When Zhou Qiang took control of the nation's highest court in March, many held out cautious hope that the former Hunan party secretary might push the judiciary towards meaningful reform.

Unlike his predecessor, Zhou holds a law degree and many lawyers thought he might have a greater appreciation for the courts. Once installed as president of the Supreme People's Court, he quickly raised hopes with a series of speeches about improving the courts.

But some have begun to question Zhou's commitment to reform in the wake of the unannounced execution last week of Hunan businessman Zeng Chengjie.

Some complain that Zeng's penalty for defrauding tens of thousands of investors of approximately 3.4 billion yuan (HK$4.3 billion) was too harsh because Communist Party officials have been spared the death sentence for similar crimes.

But most of the public outrage centred on the court's failure to notify Zeng's family before putting him to death. The public outcry only increased after the court explained that the family's "contact information was not included in court documents".

Compounding concerns is Zhou's close connection to the high-profile case. Zeng was convicted and sentenced to death in Hunan in 2011, when Zhou was overseeing the province.

Moreover, many question whether Zhou had some hand in deciding how the sentence was carried out, since his court approved the execution last month, as required by law.

"Many of the hopes raised by the supreme court's recent calls for a better legal environment have been dashed by Zeng's case," said Wang Cailiang , a veteran rights lawyer.

Many of the hopes raised by the supreme court's recent calls for a better legal environment have been dashed by Zeng's case
Wang Cailiang, rights lawyer

"People have to realise that all the optimistic remarks over the past few months are political rhetoric that will not prove to be fulfilled."

Some internet users have questioned why Zeng deserved a harsher punishment than former railways minister Liu Zhijun , who was convicted last week for accepting 64.6 million yuan (HK$80 million) in bribes. Liu received a two-year suspended death sentence, which is usually commuted to life in prison.

"Under the current non-democratic system, judges are only held accountable to their superiors, not to voters," Wang said. "So they don't put the rule of law on their top agenda."

Since his appointment, many lawyers had been reassured by Zhou's comments on reforming the judicial system. They hoped he might make the system more transparent and less subject to administrative interference.

But He Weifang , a Peking University legal scholar who studied with Zhou at the university, said the chief justice was not able to reform the entire legal system. "After all, individual strength is limited," he said. "Nothing will change if the political system doesn't change."

Zhou's immediate predecessor, Wang Shengjun , had no legal training and was widely criticised for his conservative stance on legal reform.

The judiciary's credibility had sunk so low under Wang that the Supreme People's Court's work report to the National People's Congress in March received the strongest opposition in at least six years, with more than 600 negative votes for delegates.

Earlier this month, Zhou said: "Any wrong verdicts must be correct once confirmed. This reflects our confidence in the law and is required by justice."

But his effort to restore credibility had been undercut by Zeng's execution, said Lan He , a Beijing lawyer. The case showed the top court had no respect for the basic human rights and was governed by men rather than laws, he said.

"The trend of legal reform is irreversible," Lan said. "What we could do is to hope leaders like Zhou could realise that."