Thursday, August 6, 2009

Chan Yu-lam Sentence Reduction Sheds Light on How Prisoners Are Rewarded for Good Behavior

Chan Yu-lam (陈瑜琳), a Hong Kong resident and naturalized British citizen convicted of espionage in 2004, was granted an 18-month sentence reduction on June 5, 2009, The Dui Hua Foundation has learned from an informed source in China.

A former foreign affairs official at the Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese government's de facto representative office in Hong Kong before 1997, Chan was originally sentenced to life in prison after prosecutors charged him with passing secrets to an alleged British agent. Several other former Xinhua employees were arrested simultaneously in connection with what Chinese officials at the time claimed to be a "Hong Kong spy ring," though no clear links between the detainees have ever been independently confirmed.

In August 2007, Chan’s sentence was commuted to a 19½-year fixed-term sentence. As a result of this latest reduction, he is due to be released from Shaoguan Prison in Guangdong Province on August 14, 2025.

Additional Clemency May Be Expected

Chan Yu-lam’s case illustrates how Chinese regulations enable individuals serving long prison terms to reduce their sentences gradually through “showing regret” or “acts of meritorious service.” Based on provisions of the system established in Guangdong in 2005, Chan appears to have had his sentence reduced at intervals and by lengths that indicate that he has been a model prisoner so far, suggesting that further reductions may be expected in the future.

Each provincial-level prison administration bureau in China establishes slightly different systems to reward inmate behavior, but inmates generally earn points for participating in assigned labor, obeying prison rules and other disciplinary measures, participating in education, and maintaining a positive attitude towards reform. Conversely, points are deducted for rule infractions, failure to participate in labor, or a poor attitude towards reform.

Of all of the criteria that go into judging whether a prisoner has shown regret, “acknowledging one’s crime and submitting to the law” is among the most important. The Chinese penal system’s emphasis on acknowledging guilt is something that UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak singled out for particular concern (PDF) following his inspection of Chinese prisons and detention centers in 2005. In his report, Nowak notes, “Convicted prisoners who have not confessed to their crimes are put under special education systems and are deprived of certain rights and privileges which converted prisoners enjoy, such as family visits, access to a telephone or the incentive of reduced sentences.” Prisoners who protest their convictions on procedural grounds may also face parole stigmatization, since prisoners’ continued efforts to petition higher courts to retry their cases can reflect negatively on their attitude, even though all relevant regulations make clear that inmates’ right to petition should be protected.

At the end of each evaluation period, inmates who accumulate a certain number of points are eligible to receive merit awards. Additional awards are granted to top point-earners in each cell block, and prisoners also compete for special recognition at the prison- and provincial levels. After accumulating a certain number of these merit awards, inmates may apply to the prison to recommend that a court issue a sentence reduction on grounds of good behavior or in recognition of various types of meritorious service. “Detailed rules for implementation” (实施细则) issued at the provincial level regulate the conditions, length, and frequency with which sentence reductions may be granted. Provincial courts have also issued general opinions governing how courts evaluate applications for sentence reduction and parole. Most of these rules and regulations were issued subsequent to a 2004 nationwide campaign aimed at cracking down on irregularities in the granting of sentence reduction, parole, and medical parole.

“Strict Handling” for State Security Prisoners

Under these rules, sentence reductions for individuals convicted of “endangering state security”—along with underworld gang members, core “cult” members, recidivists, and repeat drug offenders—should be “strictly handled.” In Guangdong, at least, this means delaying commencement of sentence reductions for these prisoners by six months relative to “ordinary” inmates who are similarly qualified, and cutting the length of the initial reduction by at least six months relative to what it would be otherwise. Regulations also stipulate that prisoners convicted of endangering state security should “generally not be granted parole.”

In the case of Chan Yu-lam, whose crime of espionage falls under the category of endangering state security, the commutation of his life sentence was granted nearly three years after he first entered prison. (Guangdong’s regulations [Chinese only] specify that prisoners serving life sentences must wait at least two years before they receive their first reduction, and it is not uncommon for new inmates to go through a period when they accumulate fewer points and merits as they adjust to life in prison.) Assuming that six months was cut from Chan’s reduction because of his status as a prisoner to be “strictly handled,” the decision to reduce his sentence to a fixed-term sentence of 19½ years suggests that his behavior qualified as “outstanding” (突出). The decision to reduce his sentence 22 months later by 18 months is also indicative of “outstanding” behavior, based on the regulations in force in Guangdong. If the schedule proceeds in strict accord with these regulations, Chan can next expect to have his sentence reduced in the first quarter of 2011.

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