Government and Policy

China adjusts law system after torture scandal

Updated: 2010-05-30 19:11
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BEIJING -- Following the case of a "killer" wrongfully jailed for a murder that never occurred, five Chinese ministries and judiciary organs jointly released two sets of legal rules Sunday, adjusting the criminal evidence system in a bid to prevent further miscarriages of justice.

While one regulation is principles and detailed rules for scrutinizing and gauging evidence used in cases involving the death penalty, the other sets out detailed procedures for examining evidence and for excluding evidence obtained in an illegal way like torture.

Earlier this month, Zhao Zuohai was acquitted after serving 10 years in jail for murder in Central Henan Province as the "victim" Zhao Zhenshang, reappeared alive.

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Three former police officers were arrested for allegedly torturing Zhao Zuohai into confessing to a crime that never happened.

"Judicial practice in recent years shows that slack and improper methods have been used to gather, examine and exclude evidence in various cases, especially those involving the death penalty," said a statement jointly released Sunday by the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Justice.

The two regulations were jointly issued by the five organs.

Zhao's case was not a one-off.

She Xianglin, a former security guard from central China's Hubei Province, was convicted of killing his wife on the basis of a "confession" -- despite the fact the body was never found.

He was wrongfully jailed for 11 years until his wife was found alive and well in her hometown in 2005.

She Xianglin said his confession was forced after being tortured and deprived of sleep over 10 days of interrogation.

"These cases seriously undermine the image of China's justice system and people's trust in the government," said Bian Jianlin, a law professor with the China University of Political Science and Law.

Bian noted that no previous law or regulation clearly stated that when evidence may have been acquired through forced confession it must be excluded, adding that it is highly possible evidence obtained through torture has helped secure convictions in the past.

According to the new rules, the facts and evidence used to convict must be indubitable and sufficient, and evidence in doubt or obtained illegally must be excluded.

Other evidence to be excluded includes material and documents from unnamed sources, testimony made under violence or threat, and evidence certified by unqualified organizations.

The rules also state testimony with unsubstantiated conjecture must also be excluded.

According to the new rules, during a hearing, a defendant has the right to request an investigation into whether his or her testimony was obtained properly.

If an investigation is approved, public prosecutors must provide interrogation notes and the original tapes and videos of the interrogation and the testimony of people who were present during the interrogation for the court to consider.

In addition, the regulations also specify that in capital cases, the facts must be determined according to evidence, a step forward compared with the previous general principle of "be based on facts and be judged according to law".

The high-profile move has been hailed as a milestone that will push forward law reform in China in a democratic and legalist direction.

"Under the new rules, police will not dare extort confessions through torture; prosecutors will not use evidence acquired through torture; and judges will refuse to consider such evidence. Then it won't be hard to put an end to forced confessions," said Chen Ruihua, a Peking University professor.

However, Chen noted that one issue is not addressed in the new rules: clearance rates. Clearance rates are a rigid gauge of staff or department performance that make police eager to be seen as solving cases.

Chen called for effective measures to solve the issue of clearance rate leading police to use improper methods to gather evidence.

Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, has urged judicial and administrative departments at all levels to "strictly" abide by the rules and to ensure the quality of every case by using facts, evidence, the law and responsibility.

"Every criminal case must be able to stand the tests of law and history," Zhou said.