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Supreme court renews call to ban torture

Updated: 2013-11-22 08:06
( Xinhua)

BEIJING - China's Supreme People's Court (SPC) has told judges to exclude evidence and testimonies obtained through torture and other illegal methods in a bid to promote fair justice.

According to an SPC document made public Thursday on setting up and improving a mechanism to prevent wrong judgements in criminal cases, illegal evidence and defendant testimony obtained through torture or other illegal methods -- such as forcing the accused to suffer from extreme temperatures, hunger and fatigue -- must be ruled out.

"Evidence must be valued. The traditional concept and practice of a testimony being the most paramount should be changed, and more attention should be paid to examining and using material evidence," the document said.

Torture has been a practice of widespread concern used by some Chinese law enforcement staff who intend to wrap up cases quickly through forced testimony or a confession.

In a 2010 case, Zhao Zuohai, a villager in the central province of Henan, aroused national sympathy when it was discovered that Zhao had spent ten years in prison for allegedly murdering a man who was actually alive.

Zhao was acquitted and released from prison after the supposedly murdered victim showed up alive. Consequently, three former police officers were arrested for allegedly torturing Zhao into confessing to a crime that never happened.

"Historically, illegal methods such as torture and forced testimony played a key role in almost every miscarriage of justice," said Zhang Liyong, head of the high people's court of central China's Henan Province.

Zhang stressed that banning evidence obtained through any form of illegal practice is a must if law enforcement organs want to wean themselves off over reliance on defendant testimony.

According to the document, courts should strictly follow legal procedures and responsibilities during a case. They are forbidden to take part in investigations by police and prosecuting organs.

Cases that might involve wrong judgements should be counterchecked, and rulings that have been determined to be improper must be corrected in a timely manner, the document said.

"People's courts must stick to exercising their jurisdiction lawfully and independently. ... They should not make any judgements against the law under the pressure of public opinion or involved parties' appeals, or in the name of 'maintaining social stability,'" said the document.

The SPC's document on Thursday echoed a high-profile reform plan approved earlier this month by the Communist Party of China (CPC) promising to improve human rights by reducing the number of death sentences, preventing confessions through torture, and other measures.

Capital punishment should be handed by seasoned judges and must be ruled out if evidence is not sufficient, the document stressed.

According to the SPC, a court should rule a defendant innocent in accordance with the law, despite suspicions, if the evidence is not enough for conviction.

"Such a principle might result in some guilty defendants temporarily escaping the hold of law, but it will prevent the innocent from being wrongly convicted. Between two evils, we should choose the lesser," Zhang said.

According to Zhao Bingzhi, head of the Law School of the Beijing Normal University, verdicts of not guilty are likely to arouse discontent from  victims, investigative and prosecuting organs, superior departments and the public.

"However, from a legal point of view, exterior forces should not affect a court's decision. Otherwise, the temporary harmony will be at the expense of greater social risk," Zhao said.

Meanwhile, if evidence is adequate to prove guilt, but not enough for judges to determine the sentence, the court should rule in favor of the defendant, the document said.

The document also went into great detail in stipulating court procedures and the validity of testimonies and evidence, such as interrogation locations and the authentication of fingerprints, blood stains and hairs.

Thursday's document, which targeted the court system, follows a set of rules jointly issued in 2010 by five organs, including the SPC, the Supreme People's Procuratorate and the ministries of public security, state security and justice. The rules aim to prevent miscarriage of justice in law enforcement.

These rules, which made clear for the first time that evidence obtained through forced measures must be excluded, stipulate that the facts and evidence used to convict must be indubitable and sufficient, and evidence in doubt or obtained illegally must be excluded.

Some of the stipulations were absorbed in the revision of the Criminal Procedure Law in 2012.

In August this year, the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the CPC Central Committee issued another guideline stating that judges, procurators and police officers will bear a "life-long responsibility" for their roles in wrongful convictions.

According to Lu Guanglun, a senior SPC judge, Thursday's document is the judiciary's improvements on previous rules and guidelines.

"Only when we eradicate wrong notions and practices incompatible with the spirit of law, can we eliminate the risk of another case of wrongful judgement," Lu said.

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