No sign of change in China’s deeply flawed criminal justice system

Cary Huang says instances of miscarriage of justice, as highlighted by the exonerations of two wrongly executed young men, reveal the price paid by the people for the hubris of officials

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 3:06pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 7:13pm

A critical difference in the tenet of criminal proceedings between the rule of law and absolute government is that the former might prefer having a fugitive rather than a miscarriage of justice, whereas the latter would rather produce injustice than a fugitive.

China’s record conviction rate of more than 99.9 per cent last year helps explain why its criminal justice system has produced so many misjudgments.

Early this month, the Supreme People’s Court declared that Nie Shubin, a 21-year-old from Hebei who was executed in 1995 for rape and murder, was innocent. His family had begun to seek redressal only when another man, Wang Shujin, admitted in 2005 to committing the crimes.

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The tragedy for Nie’s family is that the wounds can never be healed or lost life recovered. Nie, who would have been 42 this year, was blamed for 21 years for a crime he didn’t commit. The government did not notify his parents of the execution. His father tried to commit suicide, and his mother has been fighting to prove his innocence.

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But the bigger tragedy for the country is that its courts remain institutions that breed injustice. In many ways, their actions still resemble those of the imperial courts, which Judge Bao Zheng sought to reform in the Song dynasty.

Nie’s case once again turned the spotlight on the criminal justice system, and raised a big question about the Communist Party’s claims of reforms to uphold justice.

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Under the rule of law, a verdict is usually delivered after facts and evidence are presented and cross-checked by both the prosecution and defence. The prosecution bears the burden of proof to show beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty. There are also a number of rights afforded to the defendant and defence lawyer in a criminal trial, to ensure a reasonable and fair verdict.

Nie’s case suggested how, in China, officials can easily dictate the entire proceedings. There were obvious errors and negligence in the case before the verdict was delivered. And Nie was not the first victim of such a miscarriage of justice. An 18-year-old ethnic Mongolian, Huugjilt, was executed in 1996, also for rape and murder. But two years ago he was found innocent, also after another man confessed to the crime.

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At the centre of such cases is the lack of judicial independence and division of power in China, as well as a check-and-balance arrangement among state organs of law enforcement: the police, procurator, judge and lawyer.

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It seems obvious that when another person confesses to a crime or a claimed victim is found alive, a previous murder verdict is proven to have been wrong. Still, it took Nie’s family, lawyers and journalists 11 more years of campaigning to clear his name, due to the resistance of officials.

Nie’s exoneration only became possible after the downfall of Zhang Yue, the head of the commission for political and legal affairs of the party’s Hebei committee, who was implicated in Nie’s case and was brought down by corruption.

The courts should be the final protection for the people from the arbitrary power of officials, but the party sees them as a tool for social control. The party chief, President Xi Jinping (習近平), vowed in 2015 that the law would be a “knife held firmly in the hands of the party”.

The party is now stifling the type of advocacy that would help bring justice to innocents like Nie and Huugjilt, as the government has stepped up a crackdown which saw hundreds of rights lawyers and activists jailed last year.

Nie’s case has exposed the deep-rooted flaws in China’s party-dominated judicial system, which runs contrary to the rule of law.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post