China vows better justice as crackdown continues

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Originally published by USA Today on March 12, 2015

BEIJING — China’s chief justice Zhou Qiang vowed Thursday to stop wrongful convictions and weed out corrupt judges, as authorities try to build trust in the nation’s “socialist legal system with Chinese characteristics.”

Top prosecutor Cao Jianming also pledged better access for lawyers and to stop police from holding suspects too long.

Both men’s remarks, made Thursday at the annual session of China’s legislature, received a cautious welcome from human rights lawyers and researchers who also warned against expecting genuine rule of law anytime soon. The Communist Party retains tight control of the legal system that is currently being used to crack down on rights lawyers and other civil activists.

Five women’s rights activists who had planned to demonstrate against sexual harassment on the eve of the March 8 International Women’s Day have been put under criminal detention on suspicion of “creating a disturbance,” China Human Rights Defenders said. The Hong Kong-based group estimates that nearly 1,500 human rights defenders, including employees at non-profit groups such as the one where the five women worked, have been deprived of their liberty during the past two years since President Xi Jinping took power.

The women have been denied access to lawyers, the human rights group said Thursday.

“It’s impossible for lawyers to see defendants in ‘sensitive’ cases, and this won’t be resolved,” said Li Heping, 45, a Beijing rights lawyer. In cases involving human rights or religion, local leaders take charge, exposing China’s lack of judicial independence, he said. “It doesn’t matter what the law is, they say ‘the leader’s view is the law,’ ” Li said.

William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong, said the crackdown on human rights defenders shows how the rule of law is “used as a tool to suppress their human rights, particularly freedom of expression. It’s more rule by law.”

Veteran rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, 50, has been detained for more than 10 months, and his case remains in limbo. “He was working within the system, and always friendly to officials and the courts. His demeanor was that of a moderate,” Nee said. “The space for advocacy and human rights activities has decreased.”

Police commonly detain people longer than China’s laws permit, said rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan. His client, Su Changlan, a woman’s rights activist charged with “inciting subversion,” has been detained for over four months without access to lawyers, Liu said. He said authorities continue to extend the holding time for Su, who was detained after expressing support for the protests in Hong Kong.

Government leaders like Zhou and Cao see that lawyers can play a role in reducing embarrassing wrongful convictions, and want to draw them into the system to mediate disputes, said Eva Pils, a China law expert at King’s College, University of London.

But people like Pu and Tang Jingling, a detained rights lawyer in south Guangzhou city, are unwilling to be co-opted, she said. “They are involved in a struggle for democratic rights, such as freedom of expression and non-violent resistance, that then turns them into enemies of the state,” Pils said.

China’s leadership is “increasingly paranoid especially toward civil society,” and rejects arguments that its advocates help resolve social conflict, she said.

The Communist Party “is in command of the legal system, which is inherently incompatible with genuine rule of law,” she said.

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