Communist Party committees are meddling less in courtrooms: judges

Practice of instructing magistrates on court rulings has eased up since reform initative, but some experts say party still retains strong influence over judiciary

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 December, 2013, 10:18am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 December, 2013, 2:53am

Communist Party officials are interfering less in court hearings amid a push by Beijing to reform the country’s legal system, judges and legal experts said.

At least three judges at provincial or city-level courts said the practice by powerful committees, composed of local cadres, of issuing instructions to courts – which one academic described as coaching the judges on what rulings to make – was happening less.

Li said the authorities had decided to push the reforms earlier this year and a top official in charge of the political and legislative affairs commission told him provincial or lower-level courts would no longer coach decisions.

“The change is a positive move to improve the judicial system,” said Li. “The extensive use of political power to interfere in judging is a violation of the judicial independence.”

The committees of cadres, which have overriding authority over courts, exist in all legal jurisdictions on the mainland.

But some experts said the party retained supreme control over the administration of justice and would still get closely involved in politically sensitive cases.

The government’s political and legislative affairs commission announced earlier this year that there would be an easing of political interference in court rulings, according to a senior Supreme Court official and Li Buyun, a veteran researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences law department.

The document was published weeks ahead of the third plenum of party leaders last month and suggested that senior party leaders would only give instructions to courts in cases related to defence or foreign diplomacy.

The interfering local committees, or legal commissions, have been condemned by experts and judges as undermining the judiciary, especially when it comes to politically sensitive cases.

Judges said the move to limit the power of the cadre committees appeared to be working. “The political and legislative affairs commission in Anhui province is no longer giving instructions to judges,” said Yu Yuewu, a senior judge at the Anhui Provincial High People’s Court.

Another judge from Hebei province said the local committee still gave orders “occasionally”, but the practice “has sharply decreased since the start of the year”.

In a video conference with top law and order officials in January, the country’s domestic security tsar, Meng Jianzhu, criticised the old system in which the party always gave instructions to the courts telling them how to rule on cases.

The remarks, in which Meng also announced an eventual end to the system of re-education through forced, were not reported by state media but leaked by sources present at the conference.

The political and legislative affairs commission, which was established in the 1950s and increased in power over the decades to oversee all law enforcement agencies, appears to have waned in influence since the retirement of former director Zhou Yongkang last year.

Meng sits on the lesser 25-member Politburo while his predecessor was a member of the decision-making Politburo Standing Committee of the party’s top leaders.

Law professor Tong Zhiwei, at Shanghai’s East China University of Political Science and Law, said reducing the influence of the commission on court verdicts did not mean its influence was lessened within the party.

“The party will not lose its tenacious grip on power under the current authoritarian political system,” Tong said.

Politically-sensitive legal cases are still closely watched by the party’s central committee. Meng is believed to have arrived in Jinan, in Shandong province on the eve of the trial of disgraced politician Bo Xilai to monitor and ensure the hearing went smoothly, sources said.