China's Political Courts |
By TENG BIAO and ZHANG ZUHUA
The Asian Wall Street Journal November 3, 2006
BEIJING -- In China, legal decisions in politically sensitive cases aren't subject to public accountability. The process, hidden behind closed doors, is steered by political -- not judicial -- authorities. This has been true for decades, and was proven true again this week in the appellate case of Chen Guangcheng, China's blind, "barefoot" lawyer.
On Monday, the Linyi City Intermediate People's Court in Shangdong province overturned Mr. Chen's four-year prison sentence, and remanded his case for retrial at the local court in Yinan County, where Mr. Chen was originally convicted.
That first trial, held in August, was a sham. Mr. Chen had angered local officials in 2005 by documenting forced abortions and sterilizations. After putting him under house arrest and then detaining him for a total of nine months, local Party officials arrested him on trumped-up charges of "intentional destruction of property" and "gathering crowds to obstruct traffic."
Mr. Chen's initial, two-hour closed-door hearing was barred to all but his three brothers. His legal team, of which I was a member, was replaced by two government-appointed lawyers, against Mr. Chen's wishes. The two new lawyers never met Mr. Chen before the trial, read any of his case files, nor offered a credible defense. They only parroted the prosecution's case. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Chen was sentenced to four years and three months in prison.
The appeals process was similarly secretive. This time, our defense team was armed with extensive supporting testimony from hundreds of eyewitnesses. But in mid-October, while awaiting notice of a court date, we suddenly learned that the court had already finalized a ruling without releasing its decision to the public. Mr. Chen's family had been kept in the dark, too.
While we are relieved that this latest decision favored Mr. Chen, China's judicial process remains as opaque as ever. Reversals of verdict in politically charged cases are rare. Last year, when the Hunan Intermediate Court upheld a 10-year sentence against journalist Shi Tao, its decision was likewise shrouded in secrecy. In that case, as well, the decision was rendered without hearing arguments from Mr. Shi's lawyers. Countless other cases in China have followed a similar pattern.
Why, then, was the decision in Mr. Chen's case different? One can only guess, as Linyi court officials have explained nothing. But it seems implausible that any professional legal review was involved.
We know that local authorities in Yinan Country were angry at Mr. Chen for exposing their abusive birth-control methods. When the travesty of the subsequent arrest and conviction of Mr. Chen drew international attention, political considerations at higher levels -- most likely from Beijing -- may have come into play. The remanding of Mr. Chen's case thus seems to be the fruit of his courageous supporters inside China, as well as their friends in international human-rights groups.
Cynics might object that only those who are individually noticed and championed seem to receive any justice in China. A vast, silent majority of victims languish without attention or justice. Indeed, it could be argued that a frightened and paranoid government might even double its abusive efforts to stifle this growing opposition.
Still, the fight remains worthwhile. The Yinan County court now has, according to the law, six weeks within which to conduct a new trial based on the existing evidence, or to order an entirely new investigation. For Mr. Chen personally, it means a chance to avoid imprisonment in squalor. And for China as a whole, one can only hope that the continued pressure brought on by rights defenders against legal abuse might bring about long-term change.
Vaclav Havel, during similar struggles in communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, wrote that "demanding that the laws be upheld is thus an act of 'living in truth,' which threatens the whole mendacious structure at its point of maximum mendacity." If China has an independent judiciary three decades from now, we might look back on the Chen Guangcheng case as having played a role.
Mr. Teng is a lawyer for Mr. Chen. Mr. Zhang is a pro-democracy activist.