Thursday, October 25, 2007

Leadership Transition Points to Possible Reduction in Police Power

[Edited 10/29/07]

The ascension of Zhou Yongkang (周永康) to the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, announced at the close of the 17th Party Congress, leaves an opening at the head of the Ministry of Public Security. This position will reportedly be filled by Meng Jianzhu (孟建柱), who previously served as the party secretary of Jiangxi Province.

This transition in leadership could significantly affect the power of the Ministry of Public Security and China's police. Holding a concurrent position on the Politburo, Zhou Yongkang was the most powerful public security minister in recent history. From this position, he ushered in new reforms designed to professionalize China’s police force—while also boosting the political leverage of the Ministry of Public Security vis-à-vis other bodies in China’s criminal justice system, particularly the courts and the procuratorate. The result has been a failure to move forward on key legal reforms that would limit police power over detention and the criminal investigation process.

When Meng Jianzhu takes over as public security minister, it will be from a far weaker political position than Zhou. Meng will presumably even have to wait until at least next spring’s plenary session of the National People’s Congress to become a member of the Standing Committee of the State Council (China’s cabinet). Analysts predict that Meng and future public security ministers will not be allowed to hold a concurrent position on the Politburo precisely in order to limit the power of the police among China’s legal institutions.

Zhou Yongkang is now expected to take over from Luo Gan (罗干) as head of the Central Party Political-Legal Committee, arguably an even more powerful position, since this body sets policies and oversees all the institutions in China’s legal system. However, it is yet unclear whether Zhou—who has long focused on the importance of maintaining social stability—will continue to favor the extra power of the police from his new post. It is possible that, in fact, Zhou will be forced to pay more consideration to greater balance among the institutions in the criminal justice system, which would mean more authority and oversight by the courts and procuratorate. If so, it would be a welcome step toward establishing a more just and credible legal system for China.

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Saturday, October 6, 2007

Chinese Officials on Presence of Counsel and Torture Cases Against Investigators

A recent article from a Chinese government web site discusses the failure of China's legal mechanisms to guarantee the presence of counsel during criminal interrogation, which can leave suspects vulnerable to illegal coercion at the hands of investigators. It also touches on the burden on criminal investigators to disprove torture charges against them stemming from cases of forced confessions. With comments attributed to officials from China's main criminal justice bodies, the article (PDF with Dui Hua's translation) prescribes several measures to help China improve protection of the human rights of criminal suspects.

The piece echoes the position the Chinese government has held for years: investigators still use force, including elements of torture, to coerce confessions, and China has expressed a commitment to curb this problem through legal and penal reform. The use of torture to force confessions has been a criminal offense in China since 1979, and torture during interrogation explicitly violates the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which China ratified in 1988.

In China, a confession by a criminal suspect who is later brought to trial all but ensures a guilty verdict (and possible prison sentence) since virtually all such suspects in criminal cases are convicted. And in the Chinese penal system, forced confessions from prisoners who initially attempted to maintain their innocence have been linked to reduced sentences or better treatment, a practice that has received intense international criticism.

Positive changes in these and other areas are expected to accompany reform of China's criminal procedure law, drafts of which have been circulating and may soon receive a reading by the National People's Congress. If provisions to improve access to legal counsel and "presumption of innocence" are eventually included and effectively implemented, it would help safeguard suspects from being coerced into confessing guilt and bolster progress toward better human rights protections and established rule of law in China.

Dui Hua has paid close attention to the issues of torture and forced confessions, most prominently in its Dialogue cover story (PDF) and interview with the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture (PDF) in 2006 on the use of torture in China.

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