Ongoing anti-mafia trials in southwestern China have led to thousands of arrests and several executions of alleged mob bosses. The trials have also attracted noted defense attorneys who want to make sure the proceedings are not just show trials.
But recently, one lawyer found himself on trial, accused of falsifying evidence. Many Chinese lawyers see his case as an outrageous assault on their profession, and the case has sparked a nationwide debate about due process and the country's legal system.
The lawyer on trial was a brash, Beijing-based attorney named Li Zhuang.
Li initially inspired the support and admiration of other lawyers with his aggressive defense of an alleged local mob boss. He claimed that police had tortured his client into making a confession.
Authorities reportedly put Li under surveillance. Then they arrested him and charged him with getting his client to lie and falsifying evidence.
Finally, in a stunning reversal, Li apparently entered a plea in secret for a lesser sentence, something that China's law does not allow.
That plea cost Li the moral high ground from which he could have essentially put Chongqing's judiciary on trial.
Outrage Over 'Disregard For Rule Of Law'
Zhang Sizhi, 82, is a veteran defense lawyer with a reputation as the conscience of China's legal profession. His former clients include celebrity dissident Wei Jingsheng and Jiang Qing, Chairman Mao Zedong's wife and leader of the Gang of Four.
Zhang said the deal between Li and the authorities was disgraceful.
"What the two sides have in common is a complete disregard for the rule of law," he said in an interview in his apartment. "They try to resolve everything through behind-the-scenes manipulation and collaboration. They're completely ignoring the law, even in the midst of a legal process. It's absurd and terrifying."
Many ordinary Chinese have applauded the anti-mafia trials and hope other cities will launch similar campaigns.
Critics, though, see the trials as a self-serving sham choreographed by Chongqing's Communist Party boss, Bo Xilai, to advance his political career. Bo, the son of a Communist Party elder, is said to be positioning himself to enter the party's leadership in 2012.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Xie Yanyi has asked central government authorities to investigate irregularities in Li's case. He says the case has been engineered to deflect attention from the sloppy, even illegal work of Chongqing authorities.
"The authorities have already violated due process, extracting confessions through torture and doctoring evidence," Xie said. "They don't want to give lawyers like Li anything to use against them and derail their political project."
Xie and other critics point to numerous flaws in the trial. In several mob trials, authorities reportedly prevented defense lawyers from reviewing case materials, calling witnesses and meeting with their clients.
Several other alleged mobsters who went on trial with Li's client all testified that they had been tortured. One said he had been hung from the ceiling and beaten for more than 10 days until he confessed.
Not a single witness appeared in court in Li's trial. Witness testimony obtained by prosecutors was simply entered into the court's record, without any cross-examination of witnesses, as required by Chinese law.
Legal System On Trial
It has been only 30 years since China restored its system of trial lawyers, following the legal vacuum of the Cultural Revolution.
China's centuries of legal traditions emphasized that justice was about the end result — that is, nabbing the bad guys, and not about due process. The logic went that if a person was arrested, it must be because he did something wrong in the first place.
Chongqing authorities seem to be betting that this is how the public will see their anti-mafia drive.
Lawyer Xie doubts the public will fall for it.
"I think this case can be an excellent primer in the rule of law for ordinary Chinese," he said. "It can eliminate their worship of power and can give them confidence in the rule of law and in their own rights."
The problem, veteran defense lawyer Zhang says, is that Li's case has turned into a wholesale attack on the legal profession, including accusations that lawyers simply protect bad guys.
"If a lawyer is bad, you can criticize or even attack him," Zhang said emphatically. "But you may not expand this to say that the whole system of defense by lawyers is no good."
Allegations Of Forced Confession, Double-Cross
Li's case ended in an uproar last week. The court had just announced that Li's sentence would be reduced from 2 1/2 years in jail to 16 months when he suddenly grabbed the microphone and blurted out that his earlier confession was fake.
Li said that authorities had forced him into a plea bargain, and then double-crossed him. In a cinematic twist, Chinese media reported that Li's written confession contained a hidden message. The first characters of each of the six sentences, when strung together, form a sentence: "I was forced to confess guilt in exchange for a lesser sentence."
Zhang doubts the reports. But he believes Li's client was in fact tortured, and he says Li should have stuck to his guns, even under duress.
"Judicial authorities have all sorts of limitations and controls on us lawyers. The reason that they can so brazenly push us around is that we ourselves are too weak," he said.
Propaganda officials may not be happy with the case's implications and have quietly ordered media to stop reporting on it.