Draft amendment to the Criminal Procedure Law of China was a high priority during the fifth session of the 11th National People's Congress (NPC). Legislators produced draft revisions of over 100 articles, including 66 newly added ones. As the Criminal Procedure Law directly affects the average citizen's personal and property rights, ordinary people from the general public joined legal authorities and experts in the discussions of various ways to modify and improve upon the existing set of laws.
In recent years, many famous criminal cases have demonstrated for the public the workings of Criminal Procedure Law in court proceedings. Legal professionals and scholars have pointed out that the trials with wrongful convictions were due to shortcomings of the procedural laws at the time, as well as poor implementations of existing rules.
In two of the most well known wrongful convictions, She Xianglin and Zhao Zuohai each served prison terms of 11 and 10 years, respectively, before their supposed murder victims turned up alive and well. Investigators used torture methods in both cases to extort confessions from the suspects, which were subsequently used to conjure up physical evidences. The reason these forced confessions and tainted evidences were admissible in court was because, at the time, the law forbidding these acts was taken more like a motto.
Before the revisions, the Criminal Procedure Law declared that "it shall be strictly forbidden to extort confessions by torture or to collect evidences by coercion, inducement, deceit or any other unlawful means." However, it did not explicitly state legal actions against materials produced with these methods.
The new draft amendments have added that no person shall be compelled to be a witness against himself and that confessions and evidences acquired by torture, coercion, inducement, deceit or any other unlawful means shall be excluded from court proceedings. This exclusion eliminates the incentive for investigators to acquire evidences by unlawful means, as the actions would be efforts wasted. Going forward, these draft amendments will prevent more tragic wrongful convictions for innocent people such as She and Zhao who gave in to torture.
Beyond practical implications of the revisions, they also reflect a new focus in China's legal system. The Criminal Procedure Law is nicknamed the "Little Constitution" for its function to protect people's basic rights. It serves not only to punish criminals, but also to protect basic human rights and guarantee that criminal defendants can fully exercise their rights in trials. The fundamental purpose of the law is to ensure speedy justice for the guilty and timely exoneration for the innocent.
China's judiciary and general public have always prioritized the building of a legal system that punishes criminal offenders and maintains order in society and safeguarding people's basic rights. In doing so, they sometimes overlooked the areas governed by the Criminal Procedure Law, which regulates prosecution procedures, standardizes judicial power and protects the rights of defendants.
The new draft amendment added "respect and safeguard human rights" in the second article of the Criminal Procedure Law. Although it hasn't been written into the first article, which describes the mission and principle of the law, it is still a major improvement in the transformation of China's legal system, reflecting the progress of lawsuit concept and the return of social rationality.
In the 30 years of economic reform, China has made significant strides to improve people's living standards. After achieving relative comfort, people are calling for "more dignity" in life. There is a misperception that only criminal offenders would be affected by Criminal Procedure Law. In fact, however, ordinary people can find themselves as victims, witnesses or even defendants in criminal proceedings as social divisions and conflicts of values and interests become increasingly intricate. Without knowledge of the Criminal Procedure Law, we may not be able to exercise our rights effectively to protect our interests when we are involved in criminal trials. This makes it important that everyone pays attention to the amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law and participates in public discussions in order to perfect our country's legal system.
In referencing the Continental Legal System and systems for practicing common law in Britain, the U.S. and France, we have arrived at a profound understanding: Good ideas need effective institutions to match and implement them. China should be praised for including the text, "respect and safeguard human rights, " in its Criminal Procedure Law. However, it cannot be just a slogan. People across the country are waiting to see when and how it is executed.
The classic justice system comprises three organs: investigation, prosecution and defense. In China 's legal system in its current state, police investigators and legal prosecutors have an overwhelming advantage compared to defense lawyers.
The new revisions in the draft amendments aim to strengthen the defense. One major highlight is that defense lawyers are given the right to counsel during police investigation. Lawyers can meet with suspects within 48 hours of their arrests by providing necessary legal certificates and documents and without having to apply for approval from authorities (with exceptions for cases concerning state security, terrorism and bribery charges of high severity).
Moreover, the meeting between lawyers and suspects will be private, without monitoring by police or other third parties; defense counsel can access to and hold copies of materials in the case files after prosecutors have filed charges against the defendant; lawyers are granted the right to appeal and complaint; defense counsel for the convicted sentenced to the death penalty is given a voice in the review process.
Those are just some of the new revisions to China 's Criminal Procedure Law among many other highlights summarized at the annual NPC session which will close tomorrow. I believe this progress originates from the pursuit of fairness and consistency in legal proceedings. Only when the idea of "respecting and safeguarding human rights " strikes root in the hearts of the people can the judiciary conscientiously abide by the Criminal Procedure Law and effectively carry out justice.
Sun Yunliang is a researcher of the Criminal Law Research Center of Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and doctor of Peking University Law School.
(This article was first published in Chinese and translated by Lu Na and An Wei.)