Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Supreme People’s Court “Work Report” Indicates More Trials, Heavier Sentences for Endangering State Security in 2009

On July 13, China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC) issued its annual “work report” for 2009, the first time such a report has been presented to the public. Chinese media have hailed the report’s contribution towards promoting greater transparency and public oversight for China’s courts. But it is hard to see—at least as far as criminal justice is concerned—just how much more substantive information was provided in this report than is normally provided, for example, in the report of the SPC president presented at the annual session of the National People’s Congress each March.

The latest report, however, is not without its revelations. It provides detailed statistics about criminal adjudications that were not released in March, offering insights into Chinese courts’ handling of various categories of criminal offenses. The report shows that the number of first-instance trials concluded in cases involving charges of “endangering state security” (ESS) rose to around 760 in 2009, compared to approximately 460 the previous year.

(The figures above are estimates. The report only lists crime category breakdowns as percentages of the total number of cases adjudicated and—following the court’s practice—the category “other” includes ESS cases and also a very small number of trials for “dereliction of duty by military personnel.”)

The figures in the report represent only the number of ESS cases, not the number of individuals tried in those cases. Data from China’s law-enforcement bodies over the past several years show an average of 1.6 defendants for each criminal trial in China. But the same data also suggests a much higher average number of defendants for ESS cases—at least two defendants per case. This would mean more than 1,500 defendants tried—and almost certainly convicted—on ESS charges in 2009. (By contrast, in 2004 the reported number convicted on ESS charges was around 360.)

Such figures for ESS trials are consistent with previously reported data for arrests and indictments. According to statistics made public by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, China indicted more than 1,400 individuals for ESS in 2008, and another estimated 1,000 were indicted in 2009.

As noted in previous discussions of China’s soaring arrests and indictments for ESS over recent years, it is believed that trials for alleged “splittist” activities by Uyghurs and Tibetans contributed significantly to the large increases in 2009. In January 2010, the president of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Higher People’s Court reported a 63 percent increase in ESS trials in the region for 2009 compared to 2008. From 1998 through 2003, more than half of all ESS trials in China took place in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, according to statistics published in the Xinjiang Yearbook. During the same period, each ESS trial in Xinjiang included more than three defendants, on average.

One other remarkable item in the recent SPC report is the statement that the proportion of individuals charged with ESS who received heavy sentences—meaning imprisonment of five years or more, life imprisonment, or a death sentence (including suspended death sentence)—rose by 20 percent in 2009.

Judged purely on the major social events that have taken place in the last two years—a confluence of important dates, sensitive anniversaries, and serious ethnic unrest among Tibetans and Uyghurs—the increased use of heavier sentences is not unexpected. However, when viewed in the larger context of Chinese criminal justice over the last two decades, in which the historical trend has been toward the use of lighter sentences, an increase of this magnitude is startling. Court statistics show that from 1988 through 1992, the proportion of heavy sentences handed down in all criminal cases was 34.9 percent; the percentage rose to 40.8 percent in the period from 1992 through 1996 before declining, first to 25 percent from 1997 through 2002 and then to 18.2 percent from 2003 through 2007. In 2008 and 2009, heavy sentences were handed down in only around 16 percent of cases.

The available data suggest, however, that heavy sentences are already handed down in ESS cases at a much higher-than-average rate. In 2002 and 2004—years in which detailed data about criminal adjudications were published—heavy sentences were handed down to more than 50 percent of individuals convicted for ESS. By contrast, the overall proportion of convicted criminals given heavy sentences was around 23 percent in those years.

Though the data reported do not allow for precise analyses, this and previous reports all point towards an unquestionable trend over recent years: Chinese citizens are being imprisoned on state security charges in larger numbers and for longer periods of time than at any point in recent history.

Related Links:

•    Official Data Show State Security Arrests, Prosecutions Exceeded 1,000 in 2009, March 12, 2010

•    “Endangering State Security” Arrests, Prosecutions Jumped in 2008, More High Numbers Expected for 2009, Dialogue (Winter 2010)