One of China’s most senior judges has called for an end to miscarriages of justice by the nation’s courts after two cases of wrongful convictions have highlighted inadequacies in its legal system.
“If more of these wrongful criminal convictions appear, they will become an unprecedented challenge to the People’s Courts,” Shen Deyong, the executive vice-president of the Supreme People’s Court, wrote in thePeople’s Court Daily on Monday.
The paper is the court’s official mouthpiece.
“It’s preferable to release someone wrongfully, than convict someone wrongfully,” he said. “If a true criminal is released, heaven will not collapse, but if an unlucky citizen is wrongfully convicted, heaven will fall.”
Criminal trials in China had a conviction rate of 99.9 per cent in 2009, according to the latest China Law Yearbook. In recent months, several murder cases have raised public ire against the judicial system.
Zhejiang’s provincial supreme court on March 26 overturned a decade-old death sentence with two-year reprieve and a 15-year prison sentence for two men convicted on murder charges for killing a woman in Hangzhou.
Caixin in April reported on the ordeal of a farmer wrongfully sentenced to death with reprieve in 2008 in Zhecheng, Henan province. Also in Zhecheng, convicted murderer Zhao Zuohai gained prominence in 2010, when his purported victim returned to the village and Zhao’s death sentence had to be overturned.
Last year, Henan started to hold judges responsible for their rulings even after retirement to reduce the number of miscarriages of justice.
“Wrongful convictions are often the result of given orders, an abandonment of principles or sloppy dereliction of duty,” Shen wrote on Monday. If these things happen in the West, he argues, “the professional stigma cannot be washed away in a lifetime”.
Shen called for more respect of the judicial process, better training of legal practitioners and more transparency in the judicial review process. Chinese judges “face intervention and pressure from all sides”, he wrote, which give them little leeway to rule independently.
Shen’s article “is a good statement”, said Teng Biao, a law lecturer at the China University of Politics and Law in Beijing. “It’s progress.”
But Teng cautioned: “These are likely to be just personal views. Even if the courts are changing, they remain restrained by public security organs and the [Communist Party's] Politics and Law Committees.”
Shen, 61, gained prominence when he was parachuted to Shanghai to preside over the corruption investigation on the city’s party secretary, Chen Liangyu, who was later sentenced to 18 years in jail for bribery and abuse of power.
His comments come almost two months into Zhou Qiang’s tenure as president of the Supreme People’s Court. Unlike his predecessor, Zhou has a university degree in civil law and worked in the Ministry of Justice before scaling the party’s echelons of power.
Last month, Zhou called on lawyers and scholars to join efforts to reform China’s legal systems.