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China

Wrongful Executions Expose Deep Flaws In China's Justice System

A jail in Pingyao
A jail in Pingyao
Wang Lin

-OpEd-

BEIJING - China's Supreme Court Chief Justice Zhou Qiang recently declared that any miscarriage of justice is an affront to social fairness. The Chief Justice also announced a preliminary plan for promoting independent and impartial trials, respecting and protecting the rights of lawyers, and establishing a sound mechanism for preventing and correcting wrongful convictions.

A few days later, Zhu Xiaoching, deputy attorney general of the prosecutorial branch of government, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, published an article in Procuratorate Daily dealing with the same topic — avoiding botched judicial cases.

The recent exposure of cases of wrongful execution and imprisonment have aroused a lot of public attention. The firm declarations of these two prominent Chinese legal officials seem to be a direct response to such attention and public expression that impartiality is at the heart of justice. Without it, judicial credibility and authority simply cease to exist.

Regrettably, news about wrongful executions and prison sentences has emerged not because the judicial system realized the error of its ways. In one case, the real murderer was discovered after being arrested for other crimes; and in another the supposed victim came back from the dead...

“By reflecting on the past, what is not found now doesn't necessarily mean that objectively there was, or there won't be, the occurrence of miscarriages of justice,” Zhu Xiaoching said.

Taking the initiative to correct such errors is the obligation and responsibility of the judiciary, which cannot simply stick to the passive virtues of ordinary judicial cases.

Though equity and fairness are the ideal, it's impossible to eliminate injustice entirely, even in the most sophisticated country. Legal malpractice is bad enough, but even more horrifying is the failure to right the wrong. Without an efficient mechanism for correcting judicial errors — and an accompanying respect for human rights that must support it — China's justice system will be forever flawed.

Torture's role

The vast majority of flawed cases occur at the local level, so that's where the focus of both preventing and correcting them should be.

The difficulty such an initiative comes from the disconnect between China's upper and lower judiciaries. For instance, the upper judiciary holds that extorting confessions by torture is strictly prohibited. But the vast majority of China's wrongful convictions on the local level were born exactly that way — from confessions extracted by torture.

From filing charges to sentencing, every criminal case goes through a series of procedures involving at least a dozen judicial officers. In many cases, mistakes would have been discovered if just one officer had double-checked the critical legal points. It's an ideal China's judiciary should aim to achieve, but based on the many botched cases that have been discovered, it's clear that judicial restraint and self-monitoring have not worked effectively.

We applaud China's two supreme judicial officers decision to speak out. But these goals can only be realized if China's upper and lower judicial systems cooperate, which would mean workers throughout the legal system simply abiding by the law. Clearly, we're not there yet.

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