Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Clemency for Prisoners on PRC's 60th Anniversary Comes from Provinces, Not Central Government

While China’s leaders did not issue a national special pardon to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, thousands of prisoners benefited from provincial-level acts of clemency that coincided with National Day celebrations around the country.

Official Chinese press reports indicate that large-scale sentence reductions, paroles, and other forms of clemency took place in at least three locations—Sichuan Province, Henan Province, and the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region—to mark China’s National Day of October 1. In September, courts in Sichuan rushed to consider the more than 1,300 recommendations for parole, commutation of remaining sentences, and temporary leave made by prison authorities from throughout the province. In Henan, 2,485 sentence reductions were granted (including 1,166 that allowed prisoners to leave prison before the National Day holiday), five prisoners were granted parole, and 44 prisoners were granted medical parole. In Ningxia, more than 500 prisoners were given sentence reductions or parole, and 272 were granted temporary home leave

It is not unusual for prison authorities to announce sentence reductions and paroles in advance of important festivals such as the lunar new year, but it is less common to explicitly link such acts to a political celebration such as the PRC’s founding. In announcing the sentence reduction and parole in Ningxia, the region’s vice chairman was quoted as saying that releasing prisoners would allow them to “understand and appreciate the great changes since the Republic was founded 60 years ago.”

Compared to the seldom-used pardon procedure, sentence reduction and parole are more routine and better defined legislatively, and this may in part explain why they were used to show clemency during the anniversary period. Such a choice is not without important consequences; for one, it appears that the clemency in recent weeks was part of the celebrations in only a few areas of China, whereas prisoners throughout China could have benefited from a special pardon.

Furthermore, Dui Hua has found that regulations governing sentence reduction and parole in at least some parts of China clearly discriminate against prisoners who have been convicted of state security crimes (including subversion, “splittism,” and incitement) and “using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” Indications from Sichuan—where authorities reserved clemency for those prisoners “without deeply ingrained bad habits,” those serving relatively light sentences or whose crimes were unintentional—suggest continued “strict handling” of the cases of individuals imprisoned for political or religious reasons.

If more information about prisoners who recently received sentence reduction or parole is provided in the coming weeks, we may learn more about whether such discrimination was evident in China’s recent anniversary celebration, or whether, in fact, slogans about combining punishment with leniency, promoting national unity, and building a harmonious society were realized in practice.

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