Tales of an unjust justice

New Statesman
Got court: Ai in the arms of the law (Cartoon: @thomasycwong)

If it is true that you won’t understand Chinese society through Xinwen Lianbo (Chinese state television’s daily news programme), you should not build a picture of China’s legal system from its laws, either. In many cases, legal clauses have not been properly implemented. What is the state of China’s judiciary? After you have dealt with it at first hand a few times, you will know.

Cai Zhuohua is the pastor of a Christian house church. He and his family were sentenced for printing the Bible and distributing it to other Christians. In 2005, I defended him, along with other lawyers, including Gao Zhisheng. When the trial began, although we did everything we could, Cai’s mother was not allowed to enter the court as a spectator. During the trial, the judge bluntly interrupted the defendant and his lawyers dozens of times. In another case, Wang Bo, a Falun Gong student, and her parents were sentenced to four and five years in prison respectively in 2006, just because they were Falun Gong believers and they had published the truth about their torture on the internet. In our statement of defence, we challenged the entire legal basis of suppressing Falun Gong. After the trial, four enraged court workers lifted me up by my arms and legs, carried me across the high steps and threw me out of the court building. In such cases, the judges have no influence on the judgement, but they are willing to put their names on to the verdict. Evil can only be made real by the acts of individuals. The book Hitler’s Justice: the Courts of the Third Reich describes many cases of Nazi judges “legally” taking evil actions. There are many similar cases in current Chinese judicial practice.

Most judges face a moral dilemma: if they give a judgment according to the wishes of their superiors, they are going against their own legal training and the rule of law. If they give a judgment based on the law and their conscience, then it will affect their promotion opportunities. They may even lose their job or encounter other troubles.

In 2010 I established an NGO, China Against the Death Penalty, specialising in unjust death penalty cases. For example, in the “Gan Jinhua intentional homicide case”, I raised 22 serious doubts about the prosecution evidence. The judge took no notice and sentenced Gan Jinhua to death when important witnesses had not been allowed to testify in court. Surprisingly, the Supreme Court judges also approved the death penalty despite all that. In another death penalty case, four farmers in Leping, Jiangxi Province, were sentenced to death for “murder and rape”. After 11 years in prison, in late 2011, an arrested suspect confessed that he had committed the murder and rape. However, until today, the judicial authorities still refuse to rectify the case. In fact, according to our investigation, the four innocent farmers suffered extremely brutal torture. They were beaten up while hanging, deprived of sleep for a prolonged period of time, burned with a lighter and hit with bricks. They were interrogated by torture and forced to make a “confession” of guilt. The judge sentenced the four men to death, but apart from the oral confession there was no other evidence.

The original motive of the police was that “fatal cases must be solved”. Under this pressure, they wanted to find a scapegoat and get credited and promoted for their service. Judges often yield to or curry favour with Public Security Bureau directors. In the party’s political and legal commission system, directors of the Public Security Bureau can give orders to lead judges. Within the court, lead judges can give orders to all judges. This system is the reason for a large number of unjust verdicts in China.

After the verdict in the Gu Kailai case was announced in August, many people started comparing it with the case of Xia Junfeng, who I also represented. Gu Kailai was given a suspended death sentence for premeditated murder, but Xia Junfeng was sentenced to death for killing in self-defence. What is the reason for this? It is because Gu Kailai is the wife of an eminent official, and Xia Junfeng is a street vendor who was forced to defend himself from a violent urban management officer. This is China’s judiciary – in the case of small civil disputes, justice will still be justice, but as soon as local officials or the government become an issue, then it becomes merely a political game masked by justice.

Thought control

As I have been involved in many human rights cases, my lawyer’s licence has been revoked. China’s lawyers’ associations are almost completely controlled by the government. I have, like many other lawyers, tried to promote democratic elections in the Beijing Lawyers Association, to no avail. Many taking part in pushing for elections suffered reprisals and were stripped of the chance to practise law one by one.

I have been hooded and kidnapped on two occasions. The kidnappers were special police in charge of thought control. They took me to a secret location and started to interrogate me, often involving torture. They would say, “Don’t talk to me about the law!” A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson,
Jiang Yu, said: “The law is not a shield.” Her words were widely circulated. Clearly, in China, citizens are unable to rely on the law to protect their legal interests.

There are 200,000 lawyers in China. Few are prepared to stand in sensitive cases and fight actively for human rights. Citizens, however, are becoming braver, including journalists, writers, students and internet users. They have stood up to fight for citizens’ rights in their fields and they are pushing for progress in the rule of law in China.

As the regime is unable to solve the problem of political legitimacy, the crisis in society has intensified. The people demand democracy and their cries for human rights are increasing. I believe that the day China will put the rule of law into practice is not far off, and our efforts are meaningful.

Teng Biao is a lecturer at the China University of Political Science and Law. He is the director of China Against the Death Penalty and a human rights lawyer. At present he is a visiting scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Tags:China