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Media Helps Promote Judicial Reform

The year 2005 saw Chinese media, with unprecedented sharp style, frequently exposing injustice in trials, which not only demonstrates the country's more democratic atmosphere, but also pushes forward the country's judicial reform.

She Xianglin, an ordinary Chinese citizen, is almost known to every household, after media's extensive reporting on his grievances -- the former security guard in central China's Hubei Province spent 11 years in jail after being wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. He was finally announced innocent and released after his "dead" wife reappeared in her hometown. She also got nearly 500,000 yuan (US$61,880) of state compensation.

After She's unjust case came to spotlight, a slew of wrongly-tried cases were exposed by media. Nie Shubin, a young farmer in north China's Hebei Province, was executed in 1994 after being convicted of raping and murdering a local woman. Earlier this year, however, a rape-and-murder suspect apprehended by police in central China's Henan Province confessed that he was the one who committed that heinous crime 11 years ago. And Xu Jingxiang, who was imprisoned for 13 years for being charged of committing robbery crime, was finally found innocent too.

Li Guifang, vice director of the Criminal Committee of the All-China Lawyers Association, said in an exclusive interview with Xinhua that media's outspoken and down-to-earth exposure and criticism on the wrongly-judged cases have become important forces to push forward the country's judicial reform.

"On the other hand, I should say, the country's law enforcement organs have turned to be more open to criticism and supervision. In fact, after decades of endeavor, the country's judicial reform is ushering in a crucial stage this year," Li said.

Death penalty is the most stringent punishment for criminals. The year 2005 saw a series of reforms in this aspect. In October, the Supreme People's Court issued the second five-year reform plan for people's courts, which said the death sentence review power would return back to the Supreme People's Court.

China's 1979 edition of the Criminal Procedural Law regulated that all the death sentence with immediate execution must be reviewed by the Supreme People's Court. However, in a bid to strike hard criminal crimes, the people's court organizational law, promulgated in 1983, stipulated that some death sentences with immediate execution could be reviewed by the provincial higher people's courts.

Facts have proven that allowing provincial higher people's courts to review death sentence resulted in the lack of unified standards to review death sentence, which easily caused injustice in death sentence trial.

A senior official with the Supreme People's Court said judges must take very prudent attitude when giving death sentence to criminals. In order to do so, only withdrawing death sentence review power is not enough.

In December, the Supreme People's Court issued a notice, requiring local courts to open court session when hearing cases of death sentence in second instance as from 2006, in a bid to further ensure the justice and openness of trial of death sentence cases.

"The most tangible reforms in death penalty have been taken in 2005, demonstrating that the country has made a big stride toward judicial justice, "Li said.

Considering that most wrongly-tried cases were related to confession extortion by torture, in 2005, China's academic field had heat arguments on how to revise the Criminal Procedural Law so as to prevent the extorted confession.

Chen Ruihua, law professor with the Peking University, said the frequent occurrences of confession extortion by torture reflected loopholes in the country's judicial system.

Firstly, the country's law enforcement organs failed to follow the principle of presumption of innocence, which means criminal suspect is innocent before the court verdict is handed down.

"Therefore, criminal suspects, in interrogation period, are all innocent and should enjoy all the human rights. Policemen are not entitled to torture them for extorting confession. However, the principle of presumption of innocence had not been written into the Criminal Procedural Law, which impeded the implementation of the principle in reality," said Chen.

Secondly, the 93 provision of the Criminal Procedural Law stipulated that criminal suspect should candidly answer the questions asked by policemen. In other words, criminal suspects are not entitled to keep silent in interrogation. However, the right to keep silent in interrogation is an important human right which is well respected and protected in the Western countries.

Thirdly, defendant's right to legal counsel failed to be respected in practice either. The current Criminal Procedural Law did not give definite stipulation on lawyer's presence in interrogation. And in reality, most policemen refused criminal suspects seeking help from lawyers in interrogation.

"From the case of She Xianglin, we can easily come to the conclusion that lawyer's presence in interrogation played an important role in preventing confession extortion by torture," said Li Guifang.

The optimistic signal is that the Standing Committee of the 10th National People's Congress, or China's top legislature, has put the amendment of the Criminal Procedural Law into its five-year legislation plan. And legal experts predicted that the principle of presumption of innocence, the defendant's rights to keep silent and to seek legal council, are very likely to be written into the amendment draft of the Criminal Procedural Law.

(Xinhua News Agency December 19, 2005)

Media's Role in Judicial Reform
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