Partners on crime

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2011, 12:00am

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Although the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement between mainland China and Taiwan continues to preoccupy popular attention, this past month the two sides have made impressive progress in carrying out their less-known Agreement on Joint Cross-Strait Crime-Fighting and Mutual Judicial Assistance. That agreement between their specially constructed 'semi-official' organisations concluded its second year on June 25. Shortly before this anniversary, police from both sides of the strait, with the help of counterparts in Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand, netted 598 fraud suspects in a remarkable, precedent-setting joint operation.

Mainland and Taiwanese courts and prosecutors have also begun to speed up their implementation of the agreement. Last month, China's Supreme People's Court issued a regulation instructing lower courts on how to serve judicial documents, investigate evidence in cases involving cross-strait elements and improve relevant administration. Following the visit of Taiwan's prosecutor general to Beijing in early June, high-level prosecutors from both sides met in Taipei to discuss ways to improve practice under the agreement, including mechanisms for the remote interrogation of witnesses across the strait.

This agreement is one of 15 signed by Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation and China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait since 2008. Like the others, this agreement tactfully steers clear of politically sensitive language that might evoke conflicting sovereignty claims. For example, neither of the two governments involved, nor any government agency, is named. Legal terms such as 'extradition' are avoided, since they might suggest a compact between separate states.

The agreement is much wider in scope than the 1990 'Kinmen Agreement' signed by the Red Cross organisations from both sides of the strait. The 2009 pact covers not only the return of criminal suspects and convicts but also exchange of information regarding criminal activity, assistance in arrests and criminal investigations, and judicial co-operation in civil, criminal and administrative matters.

The importance of this agreement was demonstrated in the wake of the Taiwan- Philippines deportation row early this year. The Philippines, which recognises the mainland Chinese government as the only legitimate government of China, including Taiwan, had deported 14 Taiwanese fraud suspects to the mainland rather than to Taiwan. Following negotiations under the agreement, however, the Chinese side promised to repatriate these suspects once its investigation is completed. Having learned a lesson from its vain attempt to directly repatriate its nationals from the Philippines, Taiwan has developed a new model under the agreement, one that calls for co-operating with China's law enforcers in countries where it lacks diplomatic relations. It put the model to use in the recent joint operations against cross-border fraud rings in Southeast Asian jurisdictions. This co-operation with Chinese counterparts enabled the island's police to bring home over 200 Taiwanese suspects.

There has also been progress in other aspects of cross-strait law enforcement. Early this year, Taiwanese police and prosecutors, following leads from mainland police, arrested a Taiwanese who allegedly murdered his mistress in mainland China. This is the first case under the agreement of a Taiwanese being arrested in Taiwan for a crime committed in mainland China. It also marks the first time Taiwan prosecutors interrogated witnesses by video across the strait.

Despite such encouraging progress, some important issues remain unresolved. For example, mainland China has long been a haven for Taiwan's economic criminals. In the past, it often refused to return them on the grounds that their alleged misconduct did not constitute a crime on the mainland. Taiwan had high hopes that the situation would be improved by the agreement, which, in a case that is not recognised as criminal by one side, authorises assistance if the case involves major social harm, and both sides agree to co-operate. Despite the flexibility provided for by the agreement, the work of returning Taiwan's major economic criminals has not been effective, according to Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council.

Taiwanese government officials have also complained about poor co-ordination among their mainland counterparts. Taiwan has designated its Ministry of Justice as its sole agency in charge of cross-strait judicial co-operation. In mainland China, by contrast, responsibility for such co-operation is divided among four agencies - the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Public Security. Last year, Taiwan's deputy minister of justice claimed that 'many of Taiwan's requests are pushed around among the different departments for quite a long time and some eventually get rejected'. If mainland China cannot designate a single agency to take charge on its side, it should create a joint mechanism to do so.

To increase efficiency, experts on both sides of the strait have proposed more direct communication between counterparts at each level of every government agency involved, with these partners holding periodic meetings to assess progress. The June regulation of the Supreme People's Court instructed provincial high courts to serve as second-level channels for contact with Taiwan and co-operating under the agreement. The Supreme People's Procuratorate, Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Public Security, unfortunately, have not yet published similar rules.

Even more challenging than co-ordination issues are cross-strait differences in standards and expectations for assuring human rights and fair procedures. Criminal justice is the weakest link in China's legal system. Chinese law enforcement's heavy reliance on confession and the prevalence of torture to obtain it have long resisted reform.

Taiwan will soon be confronted with questions such as whether evidence collected by its mainland partner is legitimate and credible and how to protect the rights of its own people ensnared in mainland China's judicial system. This major subject warrants detailed cross-strait discussions, as some human rights critics have suggested.

These issues and others will make this agreement an essential focus of cross-strait relations. It deserves public attention.

Jerome A. Cohen is professor and co-director of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University School of Law and adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. Yu-Jie Chen is a Taiwanese lawyer and research fellow at the US-Asia Law Institute. See also www.usasialaw.org.