China's Leadership Faces Test In Fixing Justice System

Reports of judicial corruption and miscarriages of justice in China have attracted a lot of attention and criticism from ordinary Chinese. China's new leaders, worried this is eroding their credibility, have pledged to correct every botched court case that they find. One such case is putting the leadership's rhetoric to the test.

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In China, reports of judicial corruption and miscarriages of justice attract a lot of attention and criticism from ordinary citizens. Apparently, the number of incidents has the country's new leaders worried about their credibility. So, to increase the public's confidence they have pledged to correct every botched court case they find.

NPR's Beijing correspondent Anthony Kuhn reports on one case that is putting the leadership's rhetoric to the test.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Back in 1994, the body of a raped and murdered woman was found in a cornfield in northern Hebei Province right next to Beijing. Police arrested 19-year-old Nie Shubin in connection with the case. Nie's mother, Zhang Huanzhi, remembers how for several months her husband made trips to the prison where their son was being held to bring in fresh clothes. Then, one day...

ZHANG HUANZHI: (Through Translator) The detention center guard said to my husband, what are you doing bringing those close again, your son was already executed yesterday. If my husband hadn't brought those clothes, we would have no idea that our son had been executed.

KUHN: Zhang says the court has never offered any explanation of why her son was executed for a crime she's sure he didn't commit. Zhang has no hard evidence but she believes that police tortured her son for six days until he confessed, and then convicted him based on his confession.

HUANZHI: (Through Translator) Why didn't he confess during the first few days? Why did he finally confess on the sixth day? What did you cops do to him during those six days? What kind of tricks did you pull? We are his parents and yet we have no way to know.

KUHN: Zhang Huanzhi petitioned authorities all the way to Beijing but nobody would help her. Then, in 2005, a semi-illiterate farmer named Wang Shujin confessed to the rape and murder in the cornfield. Wang had already been sentenced to death for raping and killing three other women.

Attorney Zhu Aimin is Wang's lawyer. He says his client knows that he's likely to face the death penalty for his crimes and he doesn't want to die with any regrets.

ZHU AIMIN: (Through Translator) When he learned from the police that someone had already been executed for the murder in the cornfield, and that it was a 20-year-old kid, it really shook him up.

KUHN: State TV aired footage of a hearing in June at which a prosecutor questioned Wang about the crimes he claims to have committed.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

WANG SHUJIN: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: How did you kill the victim, the prosecutor asked? First, I strangled her until she lost consciousness, then I raped her, Wang replied.

SHUJIN: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: But prosecutors argue that Wang's description of the murder didn't match the evidence. It's something you don't often see in court - a defendant says I'm guilty but the prosecutors say, no, you're not.

It's been years since Wang confessed but Nie Shubin has still not been exonerated. His mother, Zhang Huanzhi, says that even if nobody had confessed, her son is still innocent.

HUANZHI: (Through Translator) I don't care whether Wang Shujin committed this crime are not. I only care about my own son's case. I only care about how much of it is real and how much is fake.

KUHN: Experts say the key issues and miscarriages of justice is a lack of judicial independence. Many important cases are actually not decided by judges, but by adjudication committees staffed by Communist Party functionaries.

Beijing University law scholar He Weifang says that any judge who overturns a verdict risks offending the politicians who actually decided it.

HE WEIFANG: (Through Translator) Even under this system, those judges need to know it's no simple matter to sign that verdict. After all, they presided over that trial and based on their signatures, a man was executed. Executing an innocent man is a very serious matter.

KUHN: It's not clear how many miscarriages of justice occur in China. But the head of China's Supreme Court, Zhou Qiang, recently urged judges to resist outside interference in their cases.

ZHOU QIANG: (Through Translator) Even if only one case in 10,000 is botched, to the people involved it's 100 percent unfair. That's why we demand that you do your best to achieve fairness in each case that you try.

KUHN: He Weifang says that fixing miscarriages of justice would go a long way to restoring the public credibility of China's judicial system. But it's not clear, he says, that anyone wants to take the political risk of righting those wrongs.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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