Thursday, May 9, 2013

How Many More Sacrifices until Rule of Law Reigns?

Zhao Yanjin and her husband read her acquittal verdict in their home after her release. She had spent 10 years in custody. Photo credit:

On May 6, the China Youth Daily reported on the case of a Hebei woman, Zhao Yanjin, who had stood accused of murdering a neighbor’s child in 2001. In May 2011, after a series of trials, appeals, and conflicting court decisions, the Hebei Higher People’s Court finally acquitted her on the grounds of insufficient evidence. By that time, she had spent nearly 10 years in police custody.

This might have been just one more case of belated exoneration for a suspect victimized by a criminal justice system that too often rushes to solve murder case. But there was an added twist: in Zhao’s case, it took six months for the court’s decision to reach the Baoding Intermediate People’s Court, which was responsible for announcing Zhao’s innocence, and after the decision was announced authorities in Baoding delayed her release for more than a year while they took steps to ensure that the murdered child’s relatives would not protest the decision.

Meanwhile, unaware of the acquittal, Zhao’s husband continued to protest her innocence by petitioning, which landed him in a reeducation through labor (RTL) facility for nearly 10 months—his second RTL sentence for petitioning on his wife’s behalf. In the weeks leading up to her release, court officials repeatedly met with Zhao and had her write a statement promising to remain “low-key” after her release.

Chinese media has recently reported several stories similar to Zhao Yanjin’s. In late April, two men in Zhejiang submitted a claim for 7.02 million yuan (US$1.1 million) in state compensation after a court retrial found insufficient evidence to support their conviction on rape charges nearly 10 years ago. The men say that they had been tortured into confessing. Then on May 3, five men were acquitted of charges stemming from the bombing of a government office in Fujian province—charges for which they, too, had spent a decade in custody while court proceedings stalled because local law-enforcement authorities were unwilling to acknowledge that they had no case beyond confessions coerced through torture.

In the wake of these and other cases, the problem of wrongful convictions has been in the spotlight in recent months. In March, the president of the Zhejiang Higher People’s Court blamed pressure to deal with murder cases and other serious crime for the frequent use of torture to extract confessions. Earlier this week, Shen Deyong, a vice-president at the Supreme People’s Court, warned in an essay in China Court News that mounting wrongful convictions posed an “unprecedented challenge” to China’s court system.

In a commentary posted on a major news portal in Henan Province (where authorities recently announced that judges will held accountable for wrongful convictions), Ning Xinchun reflects on the way that Zhao Yanjin’s husband describes their sacrifices as necessary to promote rule of law development in China. Ning rejects this interpretation, writing that Chinese citizens are much too easily sacrificed to the largely indifferent power of the state. Instead of forgiveness and a willingness to sacrifice oneself in the interest of eventual progress, Ning suggests that such progress is not inevitable and that outrage at the unacceptability of such sacrifices is instead needed to change a criminal justice system that makes people live in fear.

Citizen Sacrifice Doesn’t Represent Rule of Law Progress

Ning Xinchun
May 6, 2013

“Without sacrifice, we can’t further the promotion of rule of law,” said Li Jianjun. Li is Zhao Yanjin’s husband. In an effort to proclaim his wife’s innocence, he went all over to engage in petitioning and was sent to re-education through labor more than once. In September 2001, Zhao Yanjin got caught up in a murder case. Over 12 years, she was twice sentenced to life in prison and twice acquitted. Before fully recovering her freedom, she had spent a total of 10 years in a detention center. After the Hebei high court issued its acquittal decision, she was kept in custody for an additional 20 months before she regained her freedom. (Source: China Youth Daily, May 6)

A close look at the news reveals that the experience of Zhao Yanjin and her family is not unique. First, there was the She Xianglin case. Then there was the reversal of the case in Zhejiang of the uncle and nephew surnamed Zhang who had been wrongly convicted for more than 10 years. Then there was the Henan case of the “guaranteed death sentence” for defendant Li Huailiang. In terms of the time involved and the experience of having finally been acquitted and released on grounds of insufficient evidence after going through seven court hearings and three verdicts, the case is much more similar to the case of the bombing at the Fuqing, Fujian, discipline inspection committee office, where five defendants languished for 12 years in prison only to be acquitted and released.

Without doubt, human life cannot be recovered. More than a decade passed in jail, with no career advancement, loss of health, and even changing the fate of the entire family. Under the giant wheels of the state machine, lowly individuals wind up being ground up into scattered dust. Perhaps it’s out of a sorrowful choice to “forgive” or an intentional exaggeration of consciousness [that leads them to say]: “Without sacrifice, we can’t further the promotion of rule of law.”

What this news shows is that, the reality of the justice system is not only a host of procedural problems but the fact that the presumption of innocence is often set aside. Pursuing responsibility in these individual cases perhaps won’t have huge significance for a country’s legal system. But to each citizen, there is nothing in the world more significant. Faced with a shattered family or loss of life, any so-called “huge compensation” is really quite insignificant. In this respect, fairness and transparency of the legal system, adherence to basic legal rationality such as “no crime without sufficient evidence” is the most valuable thing in the lives of ordinary people because it protects people from malicious prosecution under the law.

In Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables, there is a representative of the legal system, Javert, who spends his entire life pursuing the main character, Jean Valjean. Here, the law almost becomes a force of evil used to attack ordinary people. Just like these innocent Chinese citizens who have spent long years locked up in jail, Jean Valjean lives his life in the shadow of this kind of evil law, living a life of continual setbacks, vagrancy, jail, and persecution. The only beauty in his life is in his imagining the kingdom of heaven.

Only through strict observance of legal procedure and adherence to legal rationality can we prevent the way that the machinery of state has for a long time waged mistaken wars against citizens. From another perspective, this raises a question that urgently needs to be answered: when citizens fall into deliberate legal traps, how should they use everything from state institutions to civil society to mobilize and organize forces to remedy the situation and clear channels for relief? We’ve seen that when there is no [means to seek] immediate remedy, any person can fall victim to this kind of evil legal system. If you have good luck, you can wait until the facts of the case clear your name; if not, you can spend your life in jail.

But we know that justice is not a matter of hitting the jackpot.

In his brilliant work of philosophy, The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu holds rationality to be the first criterion and maintains that ordinary laws are [reflections of] human rationality and that law is the application of human rationality in special circumstances. Today, people do not lack in expectations for rationality, but the progress of a country’s rule of law, besides being built upon the foundation of people’s rationality, must also [be based in] the state’s adherence to rationality, including a pursuit of procedural legality, improving channels for relief, etc.

At the beginning of the essay, the party to the case said that without sacrifice, we can’t further the promotion of rule of law. But society should not take comfort in this kind of magnanimous forgiveness. Instead, we should always bear in mind: citizen sacrifice does not represent social progress; it represents the shame of our rule of law, and nothing more.