Friday, February 19, 2010

Li Zhuang’s Sentence: Support for or Death of the Rule of Law in China

By Julia Zhu

China's eventful 2009 ended with another controversial episode: a record-length trial in the widely observed case of Li Zhuang, a prominent criminal defense lawyer from Beijing.

Earlier this month,  Li Zhuang was convicted of falsifying evidence and jeopardizing testimony after his client, Gong,  a suspected gang leader, who was caught in a massive crackdown in Chonqing, said the lawyer told him to lie after he was tortured by police.

Li Zhuang was sentenced to two and a half years in prison by the Chongqing court.

Li’s sentence has triggered a heated debate in China. Support for Li’s conviction came mainly from the general population. The anti-corruption campaign has been very popular among Chongqing residents, who report years of terror living under the control of violent mob factions in collusion with police and local government officials. It is, therefore, not surprising that many residents harbor no sympathy for a lawyer defending an individual who has harmed the public interest and view the lawyer's conviction as a sign of progress within the legal system. The overwhelming majority of internet comments in China expressed anger at Li for "rescuing" a heinous criminal and making big money so doing.  They believed Li acted to impede justice and that he should be punished for it.

On the other hand, many lawyers and legal scholars cite this case as an example of the lack of protection afforded to lawyers in recent years. They strongly questioned the legitimacy of the reported evidence and Article 306 of criminal law, which provided the basis for Li's arrest. Article 306 stipulates that lawyers must not "destroy or forge evidence, help any parties destroy or forge evidence, or coerce or entice witnesses into changing their testimony in defiance of the facts or giving false testimony." This vaguely-worded provision, according to the Global Times, "makes the Chinese mainland defense lawyer into something of an endangered species."

One main issue the court debated was whether Li’s client had, in fact, been tortured.  Judging from various news reports, neither the defense nor prosecution convincingly established their claims. Consequently, whether Li Zhuang had attempted to fabricate evidence of his client's torture remains unclear.

However, Li Zhuang's arrest ,conviction and sentencing raises serious questions about legal procedure and the protection of the fundamental rights of lawyers in China.  Among the more troubling due process aspects of this case are the extremely short period between his arrest and sentencing (arrested 22 days after he was retained by the client, tried 16 days after his arrest, and sentenced 9 days after trial), the lack of corroboration of Gong’s testimony, which Gong claims he made in exchange for a less severe sentence in his own case, and reports that no witnesses actually testified at the trial, with witness testimony obtained by prosecutors merely read aloud into the court record in violation of China's Criminal Procedure Law.

Subject to these serious due process issues, the legal issues were vigorously debated by both the prosecution and defense at trial and the entire trial was open to the public.

The public debate on the rule of law, due process and lawyers' rights, as well as the increasing emphasis on the importance of separating the public's emotional response to an individual case from an analysis of legal procedure, has been especially promising, as it suggests an increasing public interest in defining what a country ruled by law should look like.

No comments:

Post a Comment