Reform boosts human rights protections

By Cao Yin (China Daily USA) Updated : 2015-10-27

Courts ordered to protect civil liberties during defendants' trials and detentions

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of special reports to mark achievements in various sectors during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15).

Shang Aiyun spent nearly 10 years fighting to clear the name of her son, Hugjiltu, an 18-year-old ethnic Mongolian who was executed in 1996 after being found guilty of rape and murder. Thanks to Shang's persistence and changes to the judicial system, the verdict was overturned in December.

She was still sifting through legal documents many months after the courts overturned Hugjiltu's conviction, so the recent Mid-Autumn Festival was the first time in nearly a decade that Shang had an opportunity to take stock.

"The almost 10-year-long appeal process meant I was always tense and nervous during the holidays (when appeal decisions are often released). But thanks to changes to the judicial process, I was finally able to relax during the festival," said Shang, 62, from Hohhot, capital of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.

The case triggered widespread controversy because Hugjiltu was convicted on flimsy evidence and executed just 62 days after the murder was committed. In 2005, a number of judicial officers in Hohhot where placed under investigation after Zhao Zhihong was arrested for other offenses and confessed he had committed the murder that led to Hugjiltu's execution. After hearing of Zhao's confession, Shang began campaigning for Hugjiltu's conviction to be overturned.

With China's courts under growing pressure to correct miscarriages of justice and improve the judicial process, the case was retried late last year. The conviction was quashed on Dec 15.

"I'm grateful to the judicial system. If there were no rule of law and protection of human rights, my son's conviction wouldn't have been overturned and his name wouldn't have been cleared," Shang said.

Some of the officials involved in the case are still under investigation. "I believe that the people who behaved improperly will be punished. My son's case has prompted improvements to our legal system and raised awareness of the protection of human rights," Shang said, adding that she hopes that no other family will undergo a similar ordeal.

'Visible sign of progress'

During the 2014 two sessions, the annual gatherings of China's top legislative and political advisory bodies, Zhou Qiang, president of the Supreme People's Court, called for improvements in the protection of human rights and ordered every court to right miscarriages of justice.

Last year, China's courts acquitted 518 defendants in public prosecutions and 260 in private cases, and 1,317 cases were reviewed to rectify mistakes.

Cheng Lei, an associate law professor at Renmin University of China, praised the measures undertaken over the past five years. He said respect for, and protection of, human rights is a guiding principle of the courts, as noted and highlighted in the revisions to Chinese Criminal Procedural Law in 2012.

Since 2010, the conditions under which suspects are tried have improved. Cheng said the decision to allow defendants to wear their own clothes in court, rather than prison uniforms, was "the most visible sign of progress in the Chinese judicial system in my opinion".

Inmates can now use a computerized system to calculate sentence reductions granted for good behavior, or changes in sentencing procedures that may affect them. They can also purchase daily necessities via the system. Conditions in jails and other detention centers, where injuries were often reported, have changed for the better, Cheng said.

He praised the judicial reforms implemented by the central leadership in 2013, under which laojiao, or "re-education through labor", was abolished, saying they "indicated the country's strong determination to improve the protection of human rights".

On Oct 13, China's top court issued a guideline that required every court to make the protection of human rights a priority, to hand down sentences in accordance with the law and to acquit defendants if the evidence submitted is inconclusive or overly circumstantial.

Zhao Bingzhi, a professor of criminal law at Beijing Normal University, praised the changes and urged judicial bodies to root out improper procedures, such as harsh interrogations and evidence obtained through torture. Evidence gained via practices such as sleep deprivation and other forms of duress should be ruled inadmissible as soon as possible, he said.

Amnesty announced

A special amnesty, announced in September as part of the celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, also signals progress in the protection of human rights, "because the range of prisoners who can be set free this time extends from the elderly to young people, instead of just war criminals as in the past," Zhao said, noting that the last such amnesty was granted four decades ago.

The number of prisoners who will be freed is unknown as yet, because the courts will have to consider each release on a case-by-case basis.

Zhao said revisions of the criminal procedural law, approved by China's top legislative body, will result in a further reductions in the number of crimes subject to the death penalty.

He pointed out that the number has already been reduced to 46 from 68, and said the reduction will continue over the next five years, especially for non-violent crimes.

Reform boosts human rights protections

 Reform boosts human rights protections

Family members burn paper as a sacrificial offering in front of Hugjiltu's grave last December after a court cleared his name nearly 10 years after he was executed for rape and murder. Wu Hailang / for China Daily