On February 9, a candid video of the blind “barefoot” lawyer Chen Guangcheng was released. Near the end of the hour-long video, which Chen secretly filmed under house arrest in his home village in Shandong Province, he relates that, while serving his 51-month sentence in Linyi Prison, he accumulated around 60 “points” for good behavior, which should have qualified him for a sentence reduction. The prison warden wrote to the provincial prison administration bureau about the reduction, and the prison administration bureau sought approval from the Shandong Justice Department, which in turn sent the application to the Ministry of Justice in Beijing. No action was taken on the application, and Chen served his entire sentence. Nonetheless, Chen says that the warden almost lost his job simply for making the request. (See Dui Hua’s excerpted translation of the transcript below.)
As with so much relating to Chen’s treatment at the hands of Chinese officials, the way the application for a sentence reduction was handled does not appear to conform with Chinese laws or Shandong provincial regulations. Article 78 of China’s Criminal Law provides that sentence reductions may be granted to prisoners who “conscientiously observe prison regulations, accept education and reform through labor, and show true repentance.” Recommendations for sentence reduction are made to courts by prison wardens; courts have almost always granted the applications until recently.
Parole can also be granted but it requires a determination by the court that the prisoner to be paroled no longer represents a threat to society. A separate system is in place for medical parole. Taken together, in recent years more than 25 percent of all Chinese prisoners have been granted sentence reduction, parole, or medical parole annually. In 2009, Chinese courts handled more than 500,000 applications for sentence reduction and parole. The country’s prison population stands at just under 2 million.
Regulations issued in 1991 stipulate that recidivists and prisoners serving sentences for counterrevolution or organizing and leading a major criminal gang are to be “strictly handled.” The regulations were updated in 1997 when counterrevolution was dropped from the criminal law and “endangering state security” (ESS) was added. Regulations issued by the central government do not define “strict handling,” leaving that task to provincial authorities and sometimes individual prisons.
Dui Hua has obtained regulations governing sentence reduction and parole from 11 provinces, and about half of these regulations name ESS prisoners among those singled out for additional measures, typically “strict handling.” In general strict handling takes two forms: 1) shorter lengths for sentence reductions and longer intervals between sentence reductions, and 2) imposition of additional levels of approval in the sentence reduction and parole application process.
Regulations in Shandong prohibit granting parole to ESS prisoners and name them among groups to be strictly handled for sentence reductions. But Chen—although widely seen in the West as a political prisoner—was not actually convicted of endangering state security, but of destruction of property and gathering a crowd to disrupt traffic. Regulations calling for strict handling of ESS prisoners should not, therefore, apply. Moreover, the Shandong regulations have provisions for disabled prisoners that should have actually increased the length of any sentence reduction granted to Chen. Why then was his request for sentence reduction instead subject to such strict handling?
The likely answer is that Chen is considered an “important prisoner” under a little-known regulation put out by the Ministry of Justice in 1995. The category of “important prisoners” is broadly defined, including party and government leaders and cadres, politicians and their relatives, well-known and influential figures from the fields of science and technology, art, athletics, public health and religion. The category also includes “ethnic splittists,” clergy of underground churches, prisoners who have been convicted of organizing illegal groups and putting out illegal publications (so-called “two illegals”), and a wide swath of political and religious prisoners whose cases, like Chen’s, have “significant domestic and international influence.” Changes to important prisoners’ conditions, including changes to their sentences, are to be reported to provincial bureaus, which in turn report them to the prison administration bureau of the Ministry of Justice.
Regardless of the statutory justification being used, the Chinese government has clamped down on granting political prisoners any form of clemency, including sentence reductions. On a recent trip to China, Dui Hua executive director John Kamm was told of a case of a prisoner serving a sentence for ESS. The prisoner had already been granted two sentence reductions and had less than a year remaining to serve on his sentence. The prison applied to the local court for a sentence reduction, but the application was turned down. Dui Hua has been unable to confirm any sentence reductions for political prisoners granted in the past year.
Given that the number of people imprisoned for ESS has increased sharply over the last three years—nearly 700 ESS trials were concluded in 2009 compared to roughly 300 in 2006—the Chinese government’s decision to stop granting sentence reductions and parole to political prisoners—those convicted of both ESS and non-ESS crimes like belonging to an “evil cult” or organizing protests that disrupt official business—has contributed to a surge in the number of people serving sentences for political offenses in the country’s prisons.
Excerpted Translation of Video Comments by Chen Guangcheng
January 5, 2011
Excerpted Translation of Video Comments by Chen Guangcheng
January 5, 2011
The prison reduces sentences according to points. In this way [prisoners may receive] nine days of parole per point, [or] a six day sentence reduction per point. So, when I was to be released from prison I had close to 60 points. Even without receiving the special six-month sentence reduction that disabled individuals may receive by law even without points, [I was still eligible for] a year-and-a-half sentence reduction.
After repeatedly making this request, when I was just about to be released—around the 2010 lunar new year—the prison [authorities] decided to recommend me for a sentence reduction. They figured that a six-month sentence reduction for a year and a half worth of points ought to be okay.
They didn't dare submit the recommendation directly to the court. They had to write their opinion and deliver it to the provincial prison administration bureau. The provincial prison administration delivered the [the recommendation] to the provincial justice bureau [sic] and the provincial justice bureau [sic] delivered it to the Ministry of Justice. When I asked them about this, they said that they had not received any reply, that their superiors never replied, so they did not dare to submit [the request to the court].
I told them that they should recommend me [directly to the court]. If they recommended me and the court did not approve it, that was the court's business and I would take it up with the court. If you don't give me a recommendation when it comes time—when I have all the points I need—if you don't recommend me, what kind of move is that?
They said it was no use. Even if they recommended me, the leadership wouldn't agree to it. That’s the response they gave me.
Later I heard through the grapevine that the warden was almost fired for recommending the sentence reduction.