Chen denied committing the crime but was held for 12 years, during
which he was tortured into confession and twice sentenced to death.
He finally was released and exonerated this year, a case that
exemplifies the miscarriage of justice that China's Supreme People's
Court now says it wants to curtail.
Last week, it released its first set of detailed recommendations for
preventing wrongful convictions: Judges should presume defendants
are innocent until proven guilty, reject evidence obtained through
torture, starvation or sleep deprivation and refrain from colluding
with police and prosecutors.
The moves reflect Chinese leaders' recognition that an increasingly
prosperous public is demanding a more predictable and fair justice
system, though party officials are unlikely to fully loosen their
grasp over the courts.
"It is of significance and if adopted seriously, it will effectively
help prevent the occurrence of wrongful convictions," said Prof.
Tong Zhiwei, a legal expert at the East China Politics and Law
University in Shanghai. "The question is whether the regulation will
be fully implemented at local levels."
The recommendations are seen more as an effort to build a more
professional judiciary, one in which judges observe legal process
and make rulings that are based on sound evidence — rather than
grant courts full independence.
"If courts can be more independent, then these problems can be
easily solved," said Li Fangping, a prominent defense attorney in
Beijing. "This guidance can only increase their independence a
little bit. On technical issues, it will be of help, but as long as
there are cases where there will be intervention, it won't be of
In China, the party controls the courts, police and prosecutors.
Some judges are not trained in law, and they rarely acquit
defendants for fear of embarrassing their partners in law
enforcement. Experts and defense lawyers say police commonly
fabricate evidence or use torture to obtain confessions.
Chen Keyun was a manager of a state-owned labor recruiter in Fuqing
when a bomb exploded in 2001 outside the city branch of the party
agency that investigates cadres for corruption. The explosion killed
an agency driver.
Attacks on offices that represent party or government power in China
are treated with great urgency, with authorities moving swiftly to
solve the case and punish perpetrators to send a message of zero
Police turned to Chen as a suspect because he previously had been
investigated by the anti-graft office and punished. Five others,
including Chen's driver Wu Changlong, Chen's wife, Wu's former
brother-in-law and two migrant workers, also were arrested for
involvement in the attack.
Police detained Chen, then 48, and in the two months that followed,
he said, deprived him of sleep, beat him, starved him, and dangled
him for hours by strapping his wrists to iron rods on a high window.
"They treated me like less than a dog," Chen, now 60, said in a
phone interview. "I was an old Communist Party cadre who had been
about to retire, I had never thought that something like this could
happen to me."
[to top of second column]
Chen said he protested his innocence until he could no longer endure
His interrogators eventually forced him to sign a confession, though
he later tried to retract it, telling other investigators he had
been tortured. Chen's lawyer took pictures months later showing deep
welts on his wrists. Others accused in the case also said they were
The Fuzhou City Intermediate Court sentenced Chen and Wu to death
with a two-year reprieve in 2004, and three of the others to various
terms of imprisonment. The defendants appealed in 2005 and several
domestic newspapers reported that they might have been wrongfully
convicted. The Fujian provincial high court turned the case back to
the city court and ordered a retrial.
In 2006, the Fuzhou court tried the case again and upheld the
suspended death sentences for Chen and Wu. They appealed again, and
in 2011 the provincial court tried the case yet again. In May, the
court acquitted all five defendants.
The court offered compensation of about 4.2 million yuan ($690,000)
to the five of them in September but they are demanding more, as
well as an acknowledgement that they were tortured.
Chen's is one of a few high-profile cases of wrongful convictions
overturned in recent months. In March, a court in eastern Zhejiang
province retried and acquitted two men who were convicted in 2004 of
raping and murdering a woman, after DNA evidence from another case
ruled out their involvement in the crime.
The Supreme People's Court's latest directive is seen as building on
earlier comments by its president, Zhou Qiang, on the importance of
preventing wrongful convictions. Rights activists say it is a
welcome move, but may not be enough to curb abuses.
"The guidelines fail to address the structural problems that create
wrongful convictions — police power that goes unsupervised, the lack
of judicial independence, the absence of effective remedies when
things go wrong, and weak defense rights," said Maya Wang, a Human
Rights Watch researcher in Hong Kong. "Thus it will be unlikely to
achieve much impact on the ground."
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