Tuesday, June 1, 2010

China puts the brakes on torture of suspects, witnesses

News that China had issued new rules discouraging the use of torture to encourage suspects to confess or witnesses to testify in court is a great development for the criminal justice system there, but should be a giant stop sign for western governments trying to open trade routes to the world's most populous country. Sure, the new regulations announced Sunday bring China more in line with western ideas of justice and human rights, and are welcome, but they are long overdue. China executes more people -- 1,700 a year is Amnesty International's estimate -- than the rest of the world's countries combined, according to the New York Times. Mistreatment of suspects and, sometimes, of reluctant witnesses is common in China, the Times said. What that says about Western companies and governments doing business with China is not good, since they are supporting a terrible system. Apparently, the central government's previous attempts to liberalize the system have met with mixed results, the Times said. So, the latest pronouncement by top Chinese law enforcement and judicial bodies, while positive on the surface, will only mean improvement if enforced nationwide. The new regulations, which bar the use of confessions obtained by torture and require police officers to testify in court if a defendant alleges mistreatment, were issued a few weeks after a farmer was released from prison after 10 years after he was convicted using a confession obtained through torture. The case came to light after the alleged victim turned up alive, and caused an uproar in the normally closed society -- a huge concern for the government in Beijing, which puts a premium on social order. “Judicial practice in recent years shows that slack and improper methods have been used to gather, examine and exclude evidence in various cases, especially those involving the death penalty,” the central government said in a statement, the Times said. Legal observers in China were optimistic over the new rules. “They have come just in time because the necessity is so great,” said Zhang Xingshui, a Chinese defense lawyer. “It is a good cure for loopholes, because legal workers are often under so much pressure to get cases closed no matter what it takes.” A professor at the government-owned Chinese People's Public Security University in Beijing told the Times that the provision requiring police to testify in court was revolutionary for China. “This may be common practice for police in the West or in Hong Kong, but it is a new thing for Chinese policemen to testify in court,” Cui Min said. “We have to cultivate a new mindset, one that accepts the idea of possibly setting free a criminal over wrongfully convicting an innocent man.” Of course, it would have been a lot better if Western countries had insisted on major reforms in China before opening their markets and integrating Beijing into the world economic system. But China appears to have fully embraced the idea that there is more to be gained from peaceful relations with the rest of the world than from aggressive isolation, even if it means liberalizing how the Communist Party runs the country. And that is very good news.

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