Why Nobody Trusts China's Courts

A murderer's confession puts the public's faith in the judiciary to the test.
wshujin1.jpgWang Shujin addresses the Higher Court of Handan City on June 25. (Weibo)

At 9:00 am on the morning of June 25, Wang Shujin was escorted into the Higher Court of Handan City, Hebei province. More than 200 seats in the courtroom's public gallery were occupied. In 2005, the 46-year-old man was arrested on charges of raping and killing three women in 1994 and 1995. In 2007, he was sentenced to death.

What makes Wang's case unique, however, is that he insists his guilt in a fourth murder, but prosecutors have sought to invalidate his confession and affirm his innocence. Scholars say Wang's trial will test the impartiality and integrity of China's judicial system, as well as the public confidence in the judiciary. The verdict, nearly 8 years in coming, has been deferred once again.

The crime to which Wang Shujin has now confessed was thought solved long ago. Another man, Nie Shubin, was executed for raping and murdering the woman in a corn field in Shijiazhuang City, Hebei Province. Wang Shujin has claimed he was the real murderer and is appealing his death sentence, asking for leniency owing to his confession to a fourth murder case. The greatest controversy of the trial is whether Wang Shujin in fact killed the woman -- meaning Nie Shubin was grievously wronged -- or was just trying to reduce his sentence. According to Article 68 of China's Criminal Law, any criminal who not only voluntarily surrenders after committing the crime but also performs major meritorious services shall be given a mitigated punishment or be exempted from punishment.

The courts have repeatedly dismissed Wang's confession and invalidated his appeals upon a finding that Wang's descriptions of what he said he did deviated significantly from crucial evidence found at the crime scene. The official Sina microblog of the Hebei Provincial High Court listed the contradictions: "1. The neck of the victim was tangled with a floral shirt and Wang Shujin did not mention that in his confession. 2. The victim was smothered while Wang Shujin said he strangled and trampled her to death. 3. The times of murder do not match. 4. The heights of the victim do not match either."

Prosecutors argued that Wang Shujin was able to provide some accurate details about the murder only because he worked in a factory near the corn field, and so was familiar with the surroundings.

Since 2005, when Wang was first arrested and confessed to the murder, the trail has been highly anticipated. He has been seeking a reduced sentence since the first trial on March 12, 2007.

To overturn Nie Shubin's wrongful conviction is not only to give an explanation to Nie's family but also to fulfill a promise to all Chinese mothers that the judiciary will not wrongly kill their children.

On February 22, shortly after the Chinese New Year, law professor Xu Xin wrote on Weibo: "In the new year, we will stick to Nie Shubin's case and never surrender." The tweet was forwarded more than 290,000 times. Denunciation of the courts was prevalent among the over 30,000 comments. The absurdity of the trial has generated disappointment, complaints and exasperation among the public, scholars, lawyers and public intellectuals.

The Oriental Morning Post, a newspaper based in Shanghai, summarized the trial in just three lines: "Wang Shujin: I killed the person. Defenders: Yes he did. Prosecutors: No, he did not." The sarcastic post was forwarded more than 4,000 times and imitated the Weibo account of The People's Daily, the online presence of the Party mouthpiece paper.

Zhu Zhiyong, a columnist, tweeted: "The Hebei prosecutors reject Wang Jinshu's confession outright. It is the flagrant blaspheming of the law and the darkest moment in the history of the judiciary. Jurisdiction should be handed over to another court." He called on the National People's Congress to set up a judicial investigation team.

Even the criminal Wang Shujin, convicted of killing and raping three other women, seemed to be more popular among people than the Hebei court that was determined to affirm his innocence. A popular Weibo user named Writer Tianyou hailed Wang Shujin as a warrior fighting for the reputation of an executed man he never met, while describing the prosecutors as devils.

Beyond simple indignation, the trial has generated discussion of the deeper aspects of the case among some prominent figures.

Xu Xin, a professor of law at the Beijing Institute of Technology, published an article a day before the trial entitled Expect Judicial Justice in the Name of Mothers, expressing great admiration and compassion for Nie Shubin's mother, Zhang Huanzhi. He wrote, "Zhang Huanzhi is struggling for the redemption of the judiciary in the name of mothers. To overturn Nie Shubin's wrongful conviction is not only to give an explanation to Nie's family but also to fulfill a promise to all Chinese mothers that the judiciary will not wrongly kill their children."

Why was it so difficult to launch the retrial? Who was blocking the proceedings? Xu Xin gave an answer:

Firstly, the High Court, which was responsible for Nie Shubin's final sentencing, could not possibly rectify its own wrongdoings. Additionally, this case involved police, prosecutors, a Political Committee, a Party Committee and the administration. If it was overturned, all of the parties would have to be held accountable. Many people in power had to collude to block the proceedings of the retrial. The deepest reason is that China's court system is not an independent entity, and it is subordinate to the administrative department. The court and procuratorate act as branches or extensions of the Party and government.

Some scholars contesting the proceedings in other ways. He Weifang, a highly respected constitutional scholar at Peking University, commented on the verdicts: "I think Wang Shujin has performed major meritorious services because he insists on taking responsibility for a forth crime, and he has thwarted the movers and shakers from covering up the wrongful conviction."

Jiabao Du is a contributor to Tea Leaf Nation. 

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