Posts tagged: criminal detention

When the Murder Victim Turns Up Alive – Will Justice Be Served?

By , July 21, 2010

Zhao Zuohai, freed after 11 years in jail for a murder that never happened

May 2, 2010 was the day that Zhao Zuohai got his life back.  It was also the day that China was forced to re-examine its criminal justice system and deal with the very real fact that many innocent people in China are in jail.

In 1999, after being tortured for 33 days, including being handcuffed to a chair, beaten with sticks and denied eating and sleeping for long periods of time, Zhao Zuohai, a poor farmer from a village in Henan Province, confessed to killing a fellow villager who had gone missing.  Although only a behead body was found, its identity not 100% certain, Zhao was convicted of murder.  But after Zhao served 10 years of his 29-year sentence, the “murder victim” turned up alive, returning to his village to obtain his social security benefits.  On May 10, 2010, a court threw out Zhao’s conviction and Zhao returned to his village.

Zhao’s wrongful conviction led to a very open critique of the Chinese criminal justice system and produced changes.  At least on paper.  A month after Zhao was freed, China passed its first rules to exclude during a trial any confessions obtained through torture.  While the regulations had been a work in progress for at least the past year, Zhao’s case likely sped up their issuance.  Then, on Friday, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate  took action, upgrading its compensation scheme for wrongful conviction from 111.99 yuan (approximately $16.50) to 125.43 yuan (approximately $18.50) for every day of a person’s sentence.

Although the recent police investigation into the circumstances surrounding Zhao’s detention has been surprisingly candid, with the public release last week of the police’s investigation (in the form of a “prosecution recommendation proposal” as required by Article 129 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law (CPL)), actual repercussions for the perpetrators remain to be seen.  While five police officers have been charged with “forcing a confession,” all remain free out on China’s equivalent of bail.  Unlike in the U.S., bail is notoriously uncommon in China, where suspects remain in custody up until trial.  The example of Australian national Stern Hu is typical – denied bail even though he posed little to no flight risk.

The decision to release a suspect on bail is usually made by a high official in the police or the prosecutor’s office.  And if the recent case of Xu Zhiyong is any guide, bail means that the case will likely never go to trial.  While it creates a legal limbo for the suspect, the suspect remains free, which beats sitting in a Chinese prison.

The fact that the five police officers responsible for the torture of Zhao Zuohai are on bail means that a trial against them is unlikely.  Additionally, a recent article by Shen Bin, a Shanghai lawyer, questions if a case can even be brought against the police (English translation courtesy of the Dui Hua Foundation).  Article 87 of the Criminal Law (CL) sets a statute of limitation for criminal prosecutions; for crimes that receive a sentence of five years or less, the statute of limitations is five years. In this case, the maximum sentence the police could receive is three years (CL Article 247), making the statute of limitations for bringing a case five years, which Zhao Zuohai’s case has long surpassed. Article 88 of the CL permits the statute of limitations to be ignored if the victim brought a charge of prosecution and the prosecutor ignored it, but it is unclear if Zhao Zuohai’s complaints of torture soon after his conviction are sufficient to rise to the level of “charge of prosecution.”

Zhao Zuohai’s wrongful conviction case confirms a criminal justice system that has a lot of failings.  But it also shows a somewhat more open Chinese government willing to confront some of these issues and a populace seeking to better protect criminal suspects.  However, with the fact that the police who tortured Zhao remain free on bail with little risk of prosecution, China still has a way to go before the danger of wrongful convictions is minimized.

The Rio Tinto Trial in China – A Miscalculation about Rule of Law?

By , April 19, 2010

Originally Posted on Foreign Policy Digest

china steelDevelopments

Last summer, the billion dollar steel industry watched in rapt attention as China cracked down on one of its own.  On July 5, 2009, Chinese authorities in Shanghai detained four employees of the Australian mining company Rio Tinto, then later sentenced them to prison terms ranging from seven to fourteen years.  Many China watchers and industry insiders considered the sentencing and charges of bribery and commercial espionage to be retaliation for the recent tough iron ore pricing negotiations, and Western media were quick to portray the Rio Tinto incident as a reflection of China’s irreverence toward rule of law and its politicization of the legal system for corporate advantage.   However, in examining the Rio Tinto case, the Chinese prosecutors followed legal procedure more precisely than they do in most ordinary criminal trials in China.  While there may have been some misuse of criminal process for corporate gain, it appears that the Australian government and Rio Tinto itself may have acted as passive accomplices in its politicization.

Background

Rio Tinto is keenly aware of China’s importance in its operations.  In 2009, China’s imports accounted for $10.56 billion, or close to a quarter of Rio Tinto’s overall profits.  With China as one of the few countries still growing during the global finical crisis, it is no wonder that Rio Tinto’s 2009 Annual Report listed “strengthen [its] relationship with China” as a key strategic goal for 2010.

In China, it is neither unusual nor unlawful for suspects to be detained without being officially arrested or charged with a crime.  Article 69 of the Chinese Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) permits authorities to detain a suspect

Stern Hu

Stern Hu

without arrest for up to 30 days in certain instances—one of which is in cases with multiple suspects.  When the four employees were detained by Chinese State Security officials on July 5, 2009, Stern Hu—an Australian citizen—Wang Yong, Ge Mingqiang, and Liu Caikui appeared likely to be charged with stealing state secrets, a grave offense under the Articles 111 and 113 of the Chinese Criminal Law (“CL”) that can carry a life or, even death, sentence if convicted.  State secret trials are particularly nontransparent; the trial is completely closed, with even the defendant’s lawyer excluded.  However, upon their official arrest on August 12, the four Rio Tinto employees were not charged with stealing state secrets; instead all four were charged with the lesser crimes of stealing corporate secrets and commercial bribery, which carry prison terms of three to seven years and five years, respectively.  There is a thin line between stealing state secrets and stealing corporate secrets when the entity involved is a state-owned company, as are most Chinese steel companies.  But, given Stern Hu’s Australian nationality, it was crucial to Sino-Australian relations that China make such a distinction in this case.  On February 10, 2010, a three-judge panel in the Shanghai Number One Intermediate Court agreed to accept the case, and the four employees were officially indicted.

While in custody, the four employees received support from both Rio Tinto and the Australian government.  Sam Walsh, chief executive of Rio Tinto’s iron ore operations, remained confident in his employees’ innocence and repeatedly expressed his concern over the charges.  Australian officials who paid consular visits to Hu, as mandated by the China-Australia Agreement on Consular Relations (the “Consular Agreement”), continued to discuss the case with the press, and the Western media remained actively interested in the case, wondering how the Chinese government was going to execute what was perceived as trumped up charges against Rio Tinto employees.

Australian Consul-General Tom Connor (centre) makes a statement to the media outside the Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People's Court in Shanghai, on March 22, following the first day in the trial of four Rio Tinto employees.

Australian Consul-General Tom Connor (centre) makes a statement to the media outside the Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People's Court in Shanghai, on March 22, following the first day in the trial of four Rio Tinto employees.

In a surprising turn of events, on March 22, 2010—the opening day of the long-awaited trial–all four Rio Tinto employees pled guilty to accepting bribes totaling $13 million.  In accordance with the Consular Agreement, an Australian consular official was allowed to attend the bribery portion of the trial.   Domestic press was given access to the trial, but with only guilty pleas, there was little to report.  Foreign press was excluded.* After the guilty plea, Rio Tinto and the Australian government, the only two Western entities that have seen the actual evidence that caused the four to plead guilty, stated that there was enough evidence to support the bribery charge.  But this allegedly “clear evidence” has not been made public, making it impossible to evaluate its credibility.

On the second day of the trial, the Court tried all four defendants in a closed-door trial on the charge of stealing commercial secrets.  Even Australian consular officials, who are permitted to attend all trials under the Consular Agreement, were denied entry.  After concluding the trial on March 24, the Court reached its verdict on the following Monday, March 29, 2010.  With Stern Hu’s wife in the courtroom–the first time she had seen her husband since the day he was taken away by authorities–the Court found all four defendants guilty of stealing commercial secrets.  In accordance with Chinese practice, sentences were immediately handed out: Stern Hu received a total of 10 years in prison, and Wang Yong, Ge Mingqiang and Liu Caikou received fourteen, eight and seven years, respectively.  All of the sentences were within the timeframe allowed by the Criminal Law.

Analysis

The Rio Tinto case makes clear that the Chinese criminal justice system could use improvement, particularly in regards to the public’s access to evaluate the evidence in non-closed trials.  But it is not the grave travesty the Western media portrays it to be.  In many ways, the Rio Tinto employees were given more protection of the criminal law than must ordinary Chinese defendants.  The Rio Tinto employees were all given access to defense counsel; Stern Hu met with his attorneys on ten different occasions before trial. In China, most defendants are unrepresented and the few who retain an attorney usually have no access to that attorney prior to trial.  Additionally, the Rio Tinto commercial secrets trial lasted two days, one day longer than most trials in China, with examination of evidence, including statements from witnesses.  In China, most criminal cases rely solely on a defendant’s confession with little to no other evidence.*

But the Western media has been particularly focused on the closed commercial secrets portion, with some arguing that the closed trial violates Chinese domestic law (see here and here).  Indeed, Article 152 of the CPL states that criminal trials, except for those involving state secrets or personal private matters, are open to the public.  However, the CPL is not the only instructive document.  The Supreme People’s Court (SPC), China’s highest court, issues binding interpretations to clarify the law.  Article 121 of the SPC’s “Interpretation of the CPL” maintains that in cases involving “business secrets,” the court may close the trial if a party requests it.  The Interpretation does not say that “party” is limited to either prosecutor or one of the defendants in the case; presumably any party with an interest in the secret may request the closure.  In this case, Rio Tinto, the Chinese steel companies involved, or the Chinese government, all of whom likely have reasons to keep the public out of the seedy affairs of iron ore pricing, likely requested a closed trial.

However, it is problematic that an Australian consular officer was excluded from the corporate secrets portion of the trial, and equally disturbing that the Australian Foreign Minister would neglect to discuss or criticize the Consular Agreement violations after the verdict.  The Consular Agreement is clear that an Australian consular official is permitted to attend all trials involving Australian citizens in China.  China’s claim that “judicial sovereignty” necessitated the closing of the commercial secrets portion of the trial is specious at best and leaves China open to the Western media’s assertion that the Rio Tinto case was purely political.

Yet, there is also reason to question the roles of Rio Tinto and the Australian government in the politicization of this case.  From the beginning, when the charges were changed from state secrets to commercial secrets, both the Australian government and Rio Tinto likely exerted pressure on the Chinese government, taking advantage of the political nature of the Chinese legal system which the Western media has criticized China for.

Sam Walsh, Rio Tinto's Iron Ore Chief

Sam Walsh, Rio Tinto's Iron Ore Chief

After the four employees were found guilty, Rio Tinto was quick to report that while “clear evidence” showed beyond a doubt that the four employees had accepted bribes, all bribe-taking was conducted outside of Rio Tinto.  It seems difficult to believe that a $13 million bribery scheme, presumably resulting in cheaper prices for iron ore for Chinese steel makers or more iron ore sold to a preferred Chinese steel maker, would leave not a single trace of evidence on Rio Tinto’s systems – not a single email or a price discrepancy or any evidence that more iron ore was being sold to one steel company, nothing. Also, as others have pointed out, with regard to the charge of stealing commercial secrets, one must wonder, who was the ultimate beneficiary of the theft?   Although evidence in the commercial secrets theft is not public, during sentencing the Court stated that the Rio Tinto employees obtained secret information about the China Iron and Steel Association’s “next price for upcoming iron ore negotiations.”  In other words, the limit one can charge the Chinese steel industry for iron ore.  This is information that Rio Tinto the company would want but would be less valuable to individual employees such as Stern Hu.

There are other legal tools to use to find out this information, but it appears that the Australian government has chosen not to use them.  Under Australian law, bribery of foreign officials by an Australian company and its employees is illegal and can be prosecuted in an Australian court, even if the bribery happened abroad.  Here, the Rio Tinto employees were convicted of stealing commercial secrets.  While one could steal commercial secrets by burglarizing someone’s office or hacking into their computer, it is most likely that the Rio Tinto employees obtained the secrets from someone on the inside of China’s state-owned steel industry.  It is most likely the Rio Tinto employees paid for this type of information, which is not easily attainable or free.  Such an act would be in violation of Australia’s criminal law prohibiting bribery of foreign officials and could subject Rio Tinto to large monetary penalties.  But the Australian government has made no overtures of either investigation or prosecution of other Rio Tinto employees or Rio Tinto itself.

China’s legal system is far from perfect; greater transparency could result in a more reliable legal system, less vulnerable to censure.  In this case, allowing the public to see the evidence relating to the bribery charges and giving some sort of an explanation for closing the commercial secrets portion of the trial could have been useful.  But, ultimately, the Rio Tinto case is not the poster child for China’s retreat from rule of law or for the danger of foreign companies doing business in China.  Instead, this case makes clear that the oft quoted adage by lawyers that “bad facts make bad law” is equally as apt to the press: “bad facts make bad journalism.”

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* Corrections were made to the original article to better reflect the facts (see here).  The author still stands behind the views expressed in this article.

Huntsman Arrives in China; Xu Zhiyong, Zhang Lu & Ilham Tohti are Released

By , August 25, 2009

A day after Ambassador Huntsman’s arrival in Beijing, Chinese authorities released three prominent activists on

Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

Sunday: Xu Zhiyong, founder of Gongmeng, a public interest law organization, Xu’s assistant Zhang Lu, and economics professor and Uighur Online founder, Ilham Tohti.

Both Xu and Zhang were released on bail, a very rare occurrence under Chinese law, signifying that higher authorities likely gave approval to release the two.  Although bail is theoretically available, in the vast majority of criminal cases, the suspect remains in custody until trial.

The circumstances surrounding Tohti’s release are much less clear, but it appears that charges against him are no longer pending.

Was it U.S. pressure on the Chinese government that secured the release of these three activists?  While it likely played a role, there are other important factors that influenced the Chinese government.  First, there was significant domestic pressure, especially for the release of Xu and Zhang.  Through small donations, some as little as five or one yuan, Gongmeng was able to raise over 800,000 yuan (over $115,000) to pay the fine imposed by the tax courts.   Additionally, a group of well-regarded academics and professionals issued an open letter to the Chinese government requesting the release of Xu and Zhang.

In addition to the domestic support for Xu and Zhang’s release, a second factor that likely played a part is that their actions are viewed as less threatening to the Chinese government.  Xu’s organization, Gongmeng, worked within the

Activist, Gao Zhisheng

Activist, Gao Zhisheng

legal system, using the very laws passed by the National People’s Congress to protect the rights of vulnerable individuals.  Other activists who have taken a more strident approach to the Chinese government have not been released.  Gao Zhisheng, an attorney who has ardently represented members of the religious organization Falun Gong and who also openly called on western nations to boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was taken into custody in February 2009 and has not been heard from since.

Although Gao Zhisheng and Liu Xiaobo and many others remain in Chinese police custody, the release of Xu, Zhang and Tohti should still be viewed with guarded optimism.  Evidently, for those activists who do not go too far, the Chinese government does respond to domestic and international pressure.  However, what it means to “go too far” is still unclear and detention of activist attorneys will likely continue.

But Ambassador Huntsman and President Obama should see the release of these three activists as a positive sign, and should continue with the dialogue they have evidently already started with the Chinese government.

Public Trials Announced in Xinjiang Riot Cases

By , August 25, 2009

China Continues to Blame Outside Forces for Riots

This morning, the China Daily reported that over 200 people will go on trial, likely this week, for various crimes

Photo of Chinese protestors in Urumqi, Xinjiang on July 5, 2009

Photo of Chinese protestors in Urumqi, Xinjiang on July 5, 2009

relating to the July 5 riots in Xinjiang.  Surprisingly, the China Daily also reported that all trials will be public aside from those involving charges of “splitting the State” and “instigating to split the State.”  Because the number of cases involving these charges has not been announced, it is unclear how many of the trials will in fact be public.

Additionally, officials have yet to announce how many of the defendants are Han Chinese and how many are Uighur; at least some will be Han since the China Daily last week reported that trials of the Han defendants will occur before the Uighur defendants’ trials.

The announcement that over 200 people were arrested and face trial in the coming week was a departure from the “small number” originally anticipated.  At the beginning of August, the Chinese police stated that out of the 1,600 people detained, only 83 had been arrested.  Under the Chinese Criminal Procedure Law, a suspect can be detained for days, and in politically sensitive cases for a good month, without being formally arrested.

As with most of the articles concerning the Xinjiang riots, China Daily’s recent report again blamed foreign forces for instigating the riots.  Both the Chinese press and Chinese officials have repeatedly assigned blame for the riots to Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur woman who was granted political asylum in the United States in 2005.  Once viewed as a model minority by the Chinese government because of her successful businesses in Xinjiang, Ms. Kadeer soon fell out of favor when she began to support Uighur causes.   Jailed in 1999 for allegedly passing state secrets, Ms. Kadeer was freed to U.S. custody in 2005.  Since then, she has become president of the Uighur American Association and the World Uighur Congress.

Because the Chinese government is intent on presenting an appearance of a “harmonious society,” it is essential that it seeks to blame outside forces when discontent is presented by some of its minority groups, regardless of the claim’s validity.  After the March 2008 protests and riots in Tibetan areas of China, the Chinese government vilified the Dalai Lama, accusing him of being the mastermind behind the riots.  However, the government never provided any evidence to support the claim that the Dalai Lama was involved (see Premier Wen Jiabao’s statements here).

Similarly, with Ms. Kadeer, the Chinese government has accused her of organizing the riots from her home in Washington, DC (for a scathing critique of Ms. Kadeer in the Chinese press, click here).  While the Chinese government claims to have a recording of a phone call to her brother allegedly evidencing her role, this recording has never been made public.

Interestingly though, China’s denunciation of the Ms. Kadeer might have the unintended consequences of designating a leader of a movement that up to this point was without one.  Tibetans easily rally around the Dalai Lama since he is their spiritual leader.  But for Uighurs, there have been few that have reached the level of the Dalai Lama and symbolize their culture and religion quite the same way.  However, by continuously pointing to Ms. Kadeer and accusing her of masterminding the riots, the Chinese government may have inevitably provided the Uighur people and the Uighur movement with a much needed leader.

Rebiya Kadeer, President of the Uighur American Association

Rebiya Kadeer, President of the Uighur American Association

News Alert: Xu Zhiyong Formally Arrested

By , August 19, 2009

Chinese Human Rights Defenders reported yesterday that Xu Zhiyong was formally arrested on August 18, 2009 at 11:50 AM.

Holding a person in detention for many days prior to arrest is not uncommon.  While the norm is three days before a request for an arrest, in political cases it is not uncommon to hold an individual for up to 30 days before a formal arrest.  For a great summary on the multiple ways that a person can be held by the police without an arrest in China, see this post on China Law Prof Blog.

The charge against Xu Zhiyong – tax evasion.

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