Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tibetans Imprisoned for Text, Images as Immolations Continue

Gyurmey Thabkey, Kalsang Dondrub, and Lobsang stand trial in Qinghai's Haidong Prefecture. Photo credit: people.com.cn

Courts in Tibetan areas of China have been handing down long prison sentences to Tibetans accused of “inciting splittism” for activities connected to the series of self-immolation protests that have escalated over the past year. Just this week, three men were sentenced in Qinghai to between four and six years in prison for unspecified pro-independence text and images connected to the immolations. No detail is provided of the alleged offenses, but the official media report regarding the trial (translated below) goes to great lengths to state that the trial—which was concluded within one day, including sentencing—was carried out in strict accordance with the law and with the defendants’ rights fully protected.

This trial is the latest sign of Chinese authorities’ determination to use criminal prosecution to respond to the serious problem of self-immolation protests by Tibetans. In December 2012, local authorities in Gansu announced that criminal liability would be pursued against both those who commit self-immolations and those who aid and abet such protests.

By the end of 2012, Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database included about 5,000 people known or believed to be in custody (including in prison, RTL, detention, etc.). Of these, nearly a quarter were Tibetan, with the number of Tibetan activists recorded in the database growing 28 percent year-on-year largely due to the self-immolation protests. Imprisoned for charges similar to those brought against the men tried this week, prominent monk Yonten Gyatso was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment in June 2012 for sharing photographs and information about Tibet, while 20-year-old Ngawang Topden, an art student, was reportedly sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in February 2013 for storing images of self-immolations and the banned Tibetan national flag in his mobile phone.

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Haidong Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court Issues Sentences in First-Instance Trial for Inciting Splittism

Kan Wacao and Zhang Rui, People’s Daily Online
March 18, 2013

On the afternoon of March 18, 2013, the Haidong Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court of Qinghai Province publicly tried the inciting splittism case of defendants Gyurmey Thabkey†, Kalsang Dondrub‡, and Lobsang and issued its verdict at the conclusion of the trial. For the crime of inciting splittism, Gyurmey Thabkey was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment with subsequent deprivation of political rights for three years; Kalsang Dondrub was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment with subsequent deprivation of political rights for four years; and Lobsang was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment with subsequent deprivation of political rights for two years.

In the course of the trial, the Haidong Intermediate People’s Court ascertained that defendants Gyurmey Thabkey, Kalsang Dondrub, and Lobsang carried out the actions of inciting splittism by using others’ self-immolation incidents to disseminate text and images relating to Tibetan independence, actions that had a negative effect both locally and internationally and violated the provisions of Article 103 of the Criminal Law, constituting the crime of inciting splittism. The facts charged by the prosecution were clear and the evidence was reliable and sufficient; [therefore] the crime stands as charged. Based on the facts, nature, circumstances, and degree of social harm of the three defendants’ [respective] crimes, and having given full consideration to the opinions of both the prosecution and defense, the court issued the aforementioned verdict.

Furthermore, the Haidong Prefecture Branch of the Qinghai People’s Procuratorate assigned personnel to appear in court for the prosecution, and defendants Gyurmey Thabkey, Kalsang Dondrub, and Lobsang each appeared in court with their defense counsel to participate in the proceedings. The Haidong Prefecture Intermediate People’s Court tried this case in strict adherence with the law and regulations and fully safeguarded the procedural rights of the defendants. In the course of the trial, the court provided the defendants with Tibetan interpreters and the defendants and their defense counsel fully expressed their defense opinions during the investigation and debate over the facts and evidence relevant to conviction and sentencing. More than 100 people including friends and relatives of each defendant and people from all segments of society observed the trial and sentencing hearings.


† Translated as “Jigme Thabkey” by Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD)
‡ Translated as “Kalsang Dhondup” by TCHRD

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Judicial Independence Debuts in Contentious SPC Work Report

Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference delegate Wang Junfeng (right) discusses the "Two Meetings." Photo credit: legaldaily.com.cn

One of the major events during the annual lianghui—plenary sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)—is the day when the heads of the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate (commonly referred to as the “two supremes”) present their work reports to delegates assembled in Beijing. Though short on detail, these overviews of the work done by the national judiciary and procuracy can still help to identify aspects of the legal system that are given special emphasis in China as well as those areas that might be given special priority for future reform.

The reports presented this year by outgoing Supreme People’s Court (SPC) President Wang Shengjun and Supreme People’s Procuratorate Procurator-General Cao Jianming, who will serve a second term, focus on the accomplishments of the previous five years and set out an agenda for their successors for the coming year. To many casual observers, these work reports often seem replete with empty rhetoric and slogans. But those who look carefully can sometimes discern new phrases and subtle shifts in emphasis that may signal important future policy directions.

Such speculation was the subject of a recent interview conducted by the newspaper Legal Weekly with CPPCC delegate and chairman of the All-China Lawyers Association (ACLA), Wang Junfeng. At issue was how much to read into references to “judicial independence” in this year’s SPC work report—especially in light of pronouncements made earlier by new Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping about the importance of governing in accordance with the law and upholding the independence and fairness of the judicial system.

Supreme People’s Court President Wang Shengjun delivers the court's work report during the National People's Congress. Photo credit: China.com.cn

This expression of commitment to judicial independence by SPC President Wang Shengjun is notable, especially considering that many observers feel that under his tenure political control of China’s courts increased and earlier progress towards a more professional, independent judiciary stalled or even eroded. As evidence of dissatisfaction among lianghui delegates, the SPC report was one of several government work reports receiving the most opposition votes it has seen in five years and received more opposing votes than any other government work report, with 2,218 yeas, 605 nays, and 120 abstentions.

Wang Junfeng is clearly hopeful that new leadership in the party and the courts will change the atmosphere of “neglect of rule of law” that he sees as having brought many negative consequences to China over the past decade. But one can sense continued uncertainty in his optimism, as he insists that commitments to judicial independence and rule of law be more than just slogans.

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Judicial Independence Shouldn’t Be Mere Slogan

Interview with CPPCC delegate, ACLA president Wang Junfeng

Chen Xiao and Gao Yuan, Legal Weekly
March 13, 2013

Legal Weekly [hereafter, “LW”]: We’ve noticed that the issue of courts exercising independent, impartial judicial power was mentioned twice in the sections of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) report discussing the problems and difficulties faced by courts and the section on this year’s work agenda. Legal academics have been talking about this problem for a long time, but past reports seem never to have clearly raised the issue. What do you think about its being raised now?

Wang Junfeng [hereafter, “WJF”]: I think it’s great to bring up (independent judicial authority)! We legal professionals feel extremely gratified to see the SPC report clearly raise this issue. Actually, we knew that it would be mentioned sooner or later. From the beginning of opening and reform, independent judicial authority was one of our important standards. Independent judicial authority is one of the most important cornerstones of a rule-of-law society.

Over the past decade, China’s economy has been very successful and there have been many changes in all industries. We feel extremely proud, as if we had experienced it ourselves. But there’s no doubt that a major regret is the neglect of rule of law. In an era when the economy developed so quickly, [this neglect] is really astonishing.

But lately we’ve seen General Secretary Xi Jinping mention upholding the authority and protecting the dignity of the constitution and say that we ought to hold firm to the independence and fairness of the judicial system. Legal academics and professionals know that this is the way it should be. Of course it shouldn’t merely be mentioned. Our judicial work, including our legal professions must always attach importance to the professional and independent nature of the law. Only by remaining firm on this point will we have true rule of law.

LW: What do you think led [SPC] President Wang Shengjun to mention this problem in this year’s report? What expectations do you have as a result?

WJF: First, the new generation of central leadership is vigorously promoting governance in accordance with the law, which is a fundamental basic plan for China. Because General Secretary [Xi] mentioned this earlier, it’s logical for President Wang to mention it in [the SPC] report. If it continued to go unmentioned, how could [the report] reflect the importance of the credibility of our judicial system? To a great extent, the decline in credibility of the judicial system is a consequence of the inability to uphold judicial independence.

Bringing up the issue after 10 years makes me feel gratified, but that the same time I feel...I don’t know how to put it.

From another angle, it reminds us that this is not a slogan. No matter what changes take place in society, they must not shake the cornerstone of judicial independence.

I anticipate that this is not merely a slogan and hope that independent judicial authority can truly be put into effect in practice.

LW: President Wang mentioned in his report that the problems of difficult litigation and implementation have not yet been fundamentally resolved. As a lawyer, what is the situation? Does the All-China Lawyers Association have any data that reflect these problems? Can you give us one or two examples drawn from your practice [as a lawyer]?

WJF: The difficulties of litigation and implementation are major problems.

On the one hand, the difficulty of litigation has to do with the inability to strictly operate according to legal procedures during the court’s trial process. Sometimes the difficulty can be seen in cases where one side is in the right but cannot win their suit. Other times, it’s difficult even to file the case. In general, judicial work is affected by all sorts of factors that shouldn’t exist, problems with judicial independence, problems with judges themselves, etcetera.

Every year there’s talk of the “difficulties of litigation and implementation.” I sweat with anxiety for China’s judicial system. This shows that even though China has made many advances in rule of law, there is still a long way to go to reach ordinary people’s ideal of rule of law.

So, I look forward to this being improved under the new central party leadership and their promotion of governance in accordance with the law. Many people in legal sectors said they felt there was more hope for the nation after hearing General Secretary Xi Jinping’s speech, first of all, that the spring of rule of law had arrived. Once the spring of rule of law arrives, the glory of a nation can further progress.

I hope that when judicial independence is realized and China’s rule of law progresses further that President Wang or [future] court presidents will [be able to] speak less of these kinds of problems at the NPC and allow ordinary people to live in a bit more dignity. This is what we look forward to.

As far as the difficulties of litigation and implementation are concerned, I don’t have any relevant data. But the data isn’t that important. Now that President Wang has spoken of how difficult things are in front of the NPC, is data really that important?

LW: In the agenda for this year’s work, the SPC report spoke of the need to build up the credibility of the judicial system. This phrasing also seems rather new. Based on your practical understanding, what aspects of the realities [of the judicial system] is this aimed at? From a lawyer’s perspective, how should the credibility of the judicial system be strengthened?

WJF: Ordinary people know what it means to talk about the credibility of the judicial system.

I think that to restore the credibility of the judicial system, it’s important to eliminate bureaucratism. Actually, being a judge is an extremely sacred and honorable position, one with the authority to adjudicate according to national laws and regulations. We must eliminate bureaucratism from this profession, reduce the air of “officialism,” and increase the spirit of professionalism.

First of all, how can there be credibility when there is still no judicial independence, when bureaucratism is so severe, and when there are so many ranks among judges? In foreign countries, judges are called judicial officers and represent fairness. In China’s feudal, traditional consciousness, [the word “judge” was created by] taking the word for “law” and adding “official” at the end. I encourage the media and the courts internally to stop calling [judges] “officials” in the future. “Judicial officers” or “presiding judge” is more appropriate. When you add the word “official,” it not only brings with it seriously feudal ways of thinking, it also desecrates the position of judge itself by wiping out its specialized and professional characteristics. In the feudal society of the past, bureaucrats judged cases; now, [this is done by] judicial officers and presiding judges. If we stop calling them “officials,” perhaps it will enhance the credibility of the judicial system.

There are many factors affecting credibility: the inability to adjudicate independently, interference of all types, various disciplinary problems and derelictions among judges themselves, insufficient respect for professionalism, and so on. But as long as we stand firm on judicial independence and accept society’s public oversight, I think this problem shouldn’t be difficult to resolve.

LW: Ordinary people attach considerable importance to the fight against corruption. Recently, the anti-corruption winds have been blowing rather fiercely. Before they came out, we had hoped that the [SPC and Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP)] reports would make a point of describing the results and future plans on this subject, but it seems that not much ink was spilled on this account. Why is this?

WJF: The fight against corruption has already been mentioned many times. I think it’s normal that it wasn’t mentioned and that the court didn’t mention it. When corruption cases occur, the courts should punish them in accordance with the law. Moreover, I don’t think that the court report needs to mention such things as preserving growth or maintaining stability. The law is the law; when [a case] comes, you try it. When courts’ actions follow society or politics too closely, there will be doubts about judicial independence.

The legal system and the courts are like high mountains, standing in the distance. Its ordinary operations are to uphold fairness, punish crime, and support society. It shouldn’t be affected by the blowing wind or the falling rain. Courts ought to stand firm and adjudicate fairly and independently in accordance with the law and regulations and adhere to its professional spirit. That’s enough.

I personally believe that judges are chosen through a certain process and are endowed by the law with a special mission. It’s enough for them to handle the cases they’re given to adjudicate and stick to their responsibilities to the law.

LW: Please share your thoughts on the [SPC and SPP] reports, including positive aspects, what the highlights were, where they were lacking, and your expectations as a lawyer.

WJF: The [reports] explain clearly to the public what work was done in the judicial system over the past five years and what things were achieved. As in the past, I feel that for the most part the reports were factual and honest.

The rare thing here is that we saw that the [SPC and SPP] did not avoid the problems they face. We also saw the efforts being made to restore the credibility of the judicial system.

However, we know that legislation is not an end [in itself]. Laws are meant to be enforced. On this point, lawyers, police, prosecutors, and judges all share the same goal of ensuring that state legislation is truly and correctly enforced. That is the ultimate purpose of legislation and the ultimate objective of the state’s development of rule of law.

What we want to see from the court and procuratorate reports is not only that they say a lot, but even more so we want to see how much they have done. We hope that in the new era of national development we will be able to see the effect of rule of law in all areas of the state. Over the past decade, neglect of rule of law has brought negative consequences: corruption, loss of credibility, a growing gap between rich and poor, poisoned milk powder, collapsing buildings, and so on. I hope that society will not make this mistake again.

Over the past decade, China’s economy developed so fast yet the unfortunate neglect of rule of law brought about consequences. The entire nation should reflect on this and not allow ourselves to make this mistake again. We cannot afford to.

It’s good for us to bring up the issue of independent judicial and prosecutorial power, but we still don’t know how much we can achieve or how quickly. Based on the hopes expressed in [Xi Jinping’s] words and the expectations we legal professionals have, all lead to the hope that the springtime of rule of law could be approaching.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Targeting Evidence to End Wrongful Execution

NPC delegate and Zhejiang High People’s Court President Qi Qi. Photo credit: China.org.cn

Although frequently criticized for being relatively powerless “rubber-stamp” bodies, China’s national legislative body, the National People’s Congress, and its main consultative body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, provide delegates from throughout the country a forum to make policy and legislative proposals targeting some of China’s most pressing problems. Most of these proposals are fruitless, but with hundreds of domestic and foreign journalists covering these important annual events, some of these proposals ultimately have the opportunity to gain a wider audience that might result in more broad-based pressure to put actions behind all the talk.

In the March 11 edition of the influential newspaper The Beijing News, NPC delegate and Zhejiang High People’s Court President Qi Qi speaks about his proposal to issue regulations that would govern a new system for the additional investigation of problematic evidence in death penalty trials. In this interview, Qi speaks frankly about the relationship between torture and wrongful conviction. Having spent much of his career as an administrator in the court and procuratorial systems, Qi has a broad perspective on the pressures faced by law enforcement and judicial authorities that make it difficult to eliminate torture completely. Qi has clearly given much thought to these questions recently, as his court is in the process of reviewing a case in which five men have spent nearly 18 years behind bars for homicides that fingerprint evidence now suggests was committed by someone else.

This case, like the Zhao Zuohai case in 2010, highlights the way in which pressure to solve homicide cases leads to an over-reliance on confessions with investigators framing innocent people and courts turning a blind eye to problematic evidence. Fortunately for the defendants in this case, initial death sentences were later suspended on appeal, for, as Qi notes, under the circumstances of the time it would have been easy and expected for these young men to be put to death in order to address the social harm caused by the murders.

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Zhejiang High Court President: Basis of Wrongful Convictions Relates to Torture

NPC Delegate Qi Qi recommends public security, procuratorates, and courts jointly issue
regulations to improve procedures for additional investigation of evidence in death penalty cases

Song Shijing, The Beijing News
March 12, 2013

National People’s Congress (NPC) delegate and Zhejiang High People’s Court President Qi Qi presented a proposal at the First Plenary Session of the 12th NPC, recommending that the Supreme People’s Court, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and Ministry of Public Security jointly enact regulations governing the procedure for additional investigation of evidence during the trial period for death penalty cases in order to resolve problems in the operational mechanisms of the criminal procedure; establish a “trial-centered” system for evidence collection, production, examination, certification and review; and establish corresponding provisions to pursue responsibility for violations of the law and prevent wrongful death penalty convictions.

Qi Qi says that problems with evidence are encountered from time to time in trying death penalty cases. In order to ensure conviction, some investigation authorities do not fully submit evidence that is beneficial to the defendant. Some investigators and prosecutors believe that their investigation work is over and are indifferent to or delay the work of additional investigation. This puts courts in a difficult position between “conviction and sentencing” and “acquittal and release” and directly affects the quality of death penalty trials.

Qi Qi also indicates that wrongful criminal convictions are basically all related to coercion of confessions through torture.

According to media reports, there were two robbery-homicides of two taxi drivers in Xiaoshan, Zhejiang, in 1995. Lacking murder weapons or fingerprint evidence and primarily relying on confessions, four people were sentenced to suspended death sentences and one person was sentenced to life imprisonment. Last December, it was proven that another person may have been the culprit. Currently, the Zhejiang high court has already launched a review of the case.

“Pursuing a 100-Percent Solution Rate is Unrealistic”

The Beijing News [hereafter, “BN”]: In your recommendation, you listed 11 circumstances in which the evidence in death penalty cases may be problematic.

Qi Qi [hereafter, “QQ”]: These circumstances can all lead to mistaken judgements, so it’s necessary for investigative authorities to strengthen their work in these areas.

BN: Sometimes coercion of confessions through torture is used in order to obtain evidence. How do you view [this problem]?

QQ: Objectively speaking, police and crime are antagonistic. Despite this opposition, even when a suspect disavows and denies [criminal activity], his human rights still need to be protected. But sometimes police will get emotional and use brute force or even torture. Even if this brute force leads to confessions that solve some cases, it still can lead to some major negative side effects and forced admissions that lead to wrongful convictions. So, the law in all countries takes a negative view toward the coercion of confession and prohibits it.

BN: Why has it still not been eliminated?

QQ: In the past, there was a one-sided saying that “confession is the king of evidence.” Once there’s a confession, finding some evidence to prove the crime based on that confession seems to have relatively few costs. Moreover, police are often under pressure to solve cases as quickly as possible, and it’s very difficult to go around searching for traces and remnants when time is relatively short. Now we ask police not to be over-reliant on confessions and place more emphasis on using detection and technical methods to gather objective evidence. Confessions are also important, but they must accord with the truth.

BN: Where does the pressure on public security to solve cases come from?

QQ: For example, if there has been a series of major cases involving serious threats to social order, there will be great pressure on public security. When there’s great pressure to solve cases, sometimes one may be misled and biased in the collection of evidence.

In the past, there was a saying that “murder cases must be solved.” This actually was a kind of idealistic target, but blindly pursuing a 100-percent solution rate is unrealistic. From their perspective, courts cannot approve this “murder cases must be solved” notion because it doesn’t accord with [the principle of] seeking truth from facts. The ability to maintain a relatively high solution rate is already pretty good.

BN: If there are problems with the evidence provided by the investigating authority, is it difficult for the court to discover them?

QQ: Besides sending along evidence of the defendant’s criminal charges, [investigators] also must send along any mitigating or exculpatory evidence. When evidence that doesn’t support conviction is not sent, it becomes a choice between subjective and objective evidence. If they don’t submit it, it becomes much harder for us to discover, because there’s no way for us to know about the evidence they haven’t submitted. If we haven’t even seen any evidence that benefits the defendant, this can lead to mistaken judgments.

Court Acquittals Pressure Police, Prosecutors”

BN: Who should be held responsible for wrongful convictions?

QQ: If one of our judges handled a case improperly, we first need to look at whether he intentionally concealed evidence or there was gross negligence. If [there was], then [the judge] bears major responsibility. If there wasn’t this sort of intent or gross negligence, then mainly we need to analyze the lessons learned, learn from this case, and work hard to raise the level of professionalism.

BN: Can’t lawyers put forward evidence that benefits the defendant?

QQ: If a lawyer discovers evidence that is beneficial to the defendant—including the belief that the defendant was tortured—he or she will provide it. But lawyers don’t have the means to conduct criminal investigations and are generally only able to provide assistance on the basis of the existing evidence.

BN: Can [defendants] afford to retain lawyers in all criminal cases?

QQ: In most instances, no. In recent years, Zhejiang courts have taken the lead in expanding the scope of legal aid. Defendants who face sentences of three years’ imprisonment or more but cannot afford a lawyer are all provided with legal aid. Last year alone, we added more than 10,000 people to the ranks of those getting criminal defense.

In the past, the proportion of indigent defendants who got legal aid was very low because they had to go through a tedious process of providing all sorts of documentation to prove their financial need. Then, we talked things over with the [provincial] justice department, [noting that] anyone whose family had the least bit of economic means would certainly do their best to hire a lawyer. If someone didn’t hire a lawyer, generally it was because their family was poor. Later, the justice department supported legal aid in criminal cases.

BN: Isn’t it more trouble for judges when there is greater participation from lawyers?

QQ: Yes, it’s somewhat troublesome for judges. When defense counsel is present, court hearings are a bit longer. But without defense counsel, there is an imbalance between prosecution and defense in the criminal court. Some say that more than 95 percent of criminal cases are merely a formality [because] the evidence is basically on file and clear and it doesn’t matter whether there’s a defense lawyer or not.

I tell judges that even if 99 out of 100 cases are merely a formality, if we can stop one case where there are real problems with the evidence that may even lead to wrongful conviction, then that would be terrific and protective of human rights.

BN: What is the impact of an acquittal?

QQ: Acquittals are a common occurrence in some developed countries with Anglo-American legal systems. For a long time, based on the inertia of our criminal process, if a court acquits then the public might put a lot of pressure on the prosecutors and the police because it seems really serious. Actually, when a court rules against the procuratorate it doesn’t mean that it is indulging criminals.

If this time the evidence at court wasn’t enough to trap you, we’ll continue to keep an eye on you and when we collect enough evidence we’ll eventually bring you to justice. If only the public thought this way! Now, [judges] are only allowed to be right; they can’t make mistakes. When faced with obstacles, we have very little leeway.

“Conclusions of Xiaoshan Case Review Can’t Be Put Off Indefinitely”

BN: In the Xiaoshan case, there were suspended death sentences instead of immediate death sentences. Why was there no “presumption of innocence”?

QQ: Looking at it from a professional standpoint, at the time it was unthinkable not to impose the death penalty for the murder of two taxi drivers, so it wasn’t easy to suspend those three death sentences. Under the conditions of the time, [death with reprieve] was the only available leeway. If those people had been executed, then now there would be even less ability to remedy the situation. In all fairness, the evidence at the time perhaps wouldn’t have [triggered] a “presumption of innocence.”

BN: How much longer will it take for conclusions in the review of this case?

QQ: I think this case won’t be put off indefinitely, and we won’t have to wait very long. I understand that the media wants things to move more quickly. But I want to explain to the media that conviction of crime needs to be done carefully. It shouldn’t be done in the campaign style of “shooting tigers.” Correcting errors also needs to be done carefully and mustn’t be done in the campaign style of following herd mentality. Give us a bit of time. We’re very serious [about this case].

BN: Do you feel that there are any patterns behind wrongful convictions?

QQ: Wrongful criminal convictions are basically all related to the coercion of confessions through torture. The majority likely involve eagerness to solve the case, following preconceived notions, subjective judgment, listening only to one side, relying on torture to obtain confessions, and confessions made under duress. Recently, an American prosecutor published a book called False Justice: Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent. We have already distributed copies to judges in the higher court and intermediate courts.

BN: What do you hope they’ll learn from this book?

QQ: This book’s author [The book is authored by Jim and Nancy Petro; Mr. Petro is the former attorney general of Ohio—Ed.] uses his experience as a prosecutor to educate legal professionals about how to prevent miscarriages of justice. There are many patterns, and he summarizes 17 common mistakes that are made. For example, don’t assume that only the guilty confess to crimes, don’t assume that miscarriages of justice occur because of rational human error, and don’t assume that all false convictions get corrected during the appellate process.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Women in Prison Reports Up on International Women’s Day

Women applaud while watching a Women's Day performance at Guangdong Women's Prison. Photo credit: Xinhua

It usually takes a holiday for China’s imprisoned women to end up in the media, and International Women’s Day is one such occasion. Around this time, domestic reporters generally put the spotlight on the festivities in store for March 8, with the bulk of coverage involving sentence reductions or women in costume. This year, Beijing TV took a different approach and entered Beijing Women’s Prison to talk about the emphasis that the prison places on mental health treatment.

The report begins during a sandplay therapy session of a woman serving life imprisonment for intentional homicide. The woman’s serenity and the success of the prison’s therapeutic programs is the focus of the report, which is bolstered by a separate article putting the prison’s recidivism rate at less than 1 percent.

Beijing Women's Prison focuses on providing psychological counseling to inmates. Photo credit: Beijing TV

However, the video does not address the causes and prevalence of mental health issues among women in prison. Histories of abuse are a major trigger of crime among women in China, and as the “two meetings” (i.e., the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress) unfold, there has been renewed attention to anti-domestic violence legislation as well as data demonstrating its significance. When it comes to intentional homicide, about 10 percent of cases involve love, marriage, or family disputes, according incomplete data cited by Supreme People’s Court Vice President Huang Ermei. A 2005 study revealed that 36 percent of women in Beijing detention centers were victims of domestic violence, as compared to one in four for Chinese women as a whole, according to All-China Women’s Federation Vice President Meng Xiaosi.

Amid the reporting on domestic violence legislation, the Beijing TV report that celebrates the possibility of rehabilitation for a woman convicted of homicide reminds us that capital punishment is not the only sentence possible for Li Yan, a domestic violence survivor who killed her husband. It is unclear why her case is not discussed amid the seasonal upswing in reports on women in prison and domestic violence, but we can only hope that women and women’s rights are acknowledged in the media, and the legal system, on more than one day a year.