Outlawing "torturing for confessions", a long-waited legal progress

13:16, June 11, 2010      

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Li Hongmei

China has just issued new regulations stipulating that evidence obtained through duress and torture should no longer be admissible in court cases, especially in death penalty cases. This marks a significant step forward both for the legal system and for the protection of the basic civil rights.

The new rules came in the aftermath of a headline case about a false murder conviction in China's central Henan province where the murder suspect, Zhao Zuohai, had been beaten, framed and jailed for a murder that never happened. The alleged murderer had spent 11 years behind bars before the supposed murder victim, Zhao Zhenshang, turned up alive and well.

Had his supposed victim not fallen on hard times and resurfaced in his hometown in search of welfare support, Zhao Zuohai would have languished in his cell until well into his seventies when finishing his 29-year jail term.

All this happened in 1999, when the poor farmer had a violent argument with a fellow peasant, Zhao Zhenshang. His rival disappeared into thin air the following day. Later a headless, decomposed corpse was found in a well, which was stated categorically as evidence of Zhao Zuohai's murderous deed.

He was immediately taken away by the police, then ensued his nightmare: beaten with sticks, forced to drink chilli water, had fireworks set off over his head and deprived of sleep for about a month…until he pleaded guilty to "murder."

The Henan farmer is not the first to have suffered such abuse. In 2005, Shi Xianglin also served 11 years in jail in central Hubei province for murdering his wife, only to be proven innocent after she showed up alive. Shi also reported after acquittal that he had been tortured into confessing to a nonexistent murder.

Even though the legal authorities, who are responsible for probing Zhao’s case, assured him that those who had secured the wrongful conviction would feel the full weight of the law; and, sure enough, two police officers have been detained on suspicion of torturing him to extract a confession, people still cannot help but ask: isn’t it that in the both cases above justice was done of its own accord, the "murder victims" reappeared and the whole thing came to light. "Heaven is above our heads." as wrote one blogger in People’s Daily Online Forum.

For decades, the Chinese people have undergone an arduous journey in seeking justice, and the fair-minded judicial judgment is always a much sought after aspiration to not only the Chinese, but to the entire human society, even if it is a horse sense that there is no absolute justice and fairness on the earth.

Actually, China in theory outlawed getting a confession through duress and torture in 1996. But its definition of illegal acts was so narrow that interrogators could employ a wide range of techniques that contravened what is stipulated by Law.

Therefore, it has been an implicit and commonplace practice that the police tend to torture confessions out of the suspects and force reluctant witnesses to provide the required statements.

The new rules on evidence jointly issued by the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Justice came in time to regulate the judicial procedures and also shed some light on the government’s resolve to set to right what has been thrown into disorder.

Admittedly, making prosecutors responsible for showing that evidence used was not obtained illegally is a change in the legal mindset. It means that instead of just placing emphasis on not allowing the guilty to escape punishment, the new thinking must be on not allowing innocent people to be convicted and falsely imprisoned.

Premier Wen Jiabao pledged on various occasions that the government would ensure the people to lead a life with happiness and human dignity. But "with the skin gone, what can the hair adhere to," as goes the old Chinese saying. Dignity would not exist without a basis nourished by justice and fairness.


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