Wrongful Executions Expose Deep Flaws In China's Justice System

A jail in Pingyao
A jail in Pingyao
Wang Lin


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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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