The following was originally written as an editorial for the Global Times, but by the time my editor saw it, they had run something similar, so you get it here.
The Xinhua News Agency reported last week two major adjustments to the criminal justice system that had been jointly announced by five government organs. The first adjustment is essentially a new set of rules governing how evidence is obtained and how it should be scrutinized in capital cases. The other outlines evidence-gathering procedures and excludes evidence gained through forced confessions and torture.
The widely-reported catalyst for these adjustments is Zhao Zuohai, a man who served ten years in prison for a murder he never committed. His conviction hinged on his own admission of guilt, allegedly obtained through torture at the hands of three police officers, who have now been arrested. Zhao would still be in prison if the so-called “murder victim” hadn’t turned up alive. The same thing happened to She Xianglin, who was convicted of killing his wife and served eleven years in prison before she was found, very much alive, in her hometown.
These cases are embarrassments to China’s legal system, to be sure, but they may not be the only causes for the adjustment. In the past few years, there have been a number of “suspicious deaths” in Chinese jails. Chinese netizens have roundly decried and mocked a number of cases in which suspects awaiting trial have turned up dead, and the authorities have offered less-than-believable excuses for their deaths. One such suspect famously died while “playing hide and seek” with other inmates. Another supposedly met his end by drinking a glass of hot water mixed with cold medicine, but family members who saw his body said that it was covered with bruises and cuts and that there was a hole in his head. Whether these stories are true or not, the widespread perception is that these suspects were killed, probably accidentally, while they were being tortured to extract confessions.
Needless to say, then, the new regulations are a step forward. Questions of ethics aside, torture has proven time and time again to be an ineffective way of obtaining accurate evidence because of subjects’ willingness to say something, anything, to stop the pain. Other countries have wrestled with the same issue; since September 11, 2001, debate has raged throughout the United States on the ethical and practical usefulness of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on terrorism suspects, and after it was learned that much of the 9/11 Commission famous report on the incident was based on confessions obtained using these techniques, many of the Commission conclusions have been thrown into questions, and many have been left wondering how many people the US may be detaining without sufficient evidence. Similarly, while Zhao Zuohai and She Xianglin are free now, one shudders to think how many other innocent people are still imprisoned not because they committed a crime, but because they could not stand the pain of torture at the hands of the police.
Without effective enforcement, however, these new regulations are essentially worthless. Police officers presumably aren’t going to write that they have tortured their suspects on their court reports, so the courts need to be granted real power and the autonomy to independently verify the methods with which evidence was obtained without fear of political or legal reprisal. Without real authority, the courts’ attempts to investigate wrongdoing will surely be blocked and hindered at every turn by corrupt police and officials eager to protect their own interests.
Beijing is to be applauded for these new measures, and urged to take the steps necessary to actually enforce them. While an independent judiciary with real authority understandably makes some in power nervous, granting real judicial oversight is the only way to be sure that in the future, more innocent men like Zhao Zuohai aren’t locked away.