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Presumed Guilty in China’s War on Corruption, Targets Suffer AbusesANDREW JACOBS and CHRIS BUCKLEY19 October 2014He was starved, pummelled and interrogated for days on end in an ice-cold room where sleeping, sitting or even leaning against a wall were forbidden. One beating left Wang Guanglong, a midlevel official from China’s Fujian Province, partly deaf, according to his later testimony. Suicide, he told relatives and his lawyers afterward, tempted him.In the end, he said, he took a deal: He signed a confession acknowledging he had accepted $27,000 in bribes, wrongly believing he would be released on bail and able to clear his name of a crime he says he did not commit.“He did what they told him to do in order to save his own life,” his sister, Wang Xiuyun, said in an interview.China is in the midst of a scorching campaign against government corruption, one that has netted more than 50 high-ranking officials and tens of thousands of workaday bureaucrats as part of President Xi Jinping’s effort to restore public confidence in the ruling Communist Party. In the first half of this year, prosecutors opened more than 6,000 investigations of party officials, according to government statistics released in July.And China’s leaders vow that their cleanout has just begun.But admirers of Mr. Xi’s antigraft blitz largely overlook a key paradox of the campaign, critics say: Waged in the name of law and accountability, the war on corruption often operates beyond the law in a secretive realm of party-run agencies, like the one that snared Mr. Wang, plagued by their own abuses and hazards.In more than a dozen interviews, legal scholars and lawyers who have represented fallen officials said defending them was especially difficult, even by the standards of a judicial system tightly controlled by the party.The biggest challenge, they say, begins the moment an accused official disappears into the custody of party investigators for a month’s long period during which interrogators seek to extract confessions, sometimes through torture.Known as shuanggui, it is a secretive, extralegal process that leaves detainees cut off from lawyers, associates and relatives. “It deprives citizens of their fundamental rights,” said Mao Lixin, a lawyer who represented Mr. Wang.But even after a case leaves the hands of party investigators and enters the criminal justice system, lawyers say, they have limited access to evidence, witnesses and their clients. And trials, they say, are often hasty affairs that ignore defendants’ allegations of coercion and torture.Lawyers say Chinese courts rarely allow them to call defence witnesses, while prosecutors frequently withhold crucial evidence.Guilty verdicts are rarely in doubt. Of the 8,110 officials who received court verdicts on bribery and graft charges in the first half of this year, 99.8 percent were convicted, according to government figures. That is, only 14 of the defendants were cleared of charges.Even as they cheer Mr. Xi’s anticorruption campaign, defence lawyers and advocates of legal reform are raising red flags about the lack of due process for those accused of official wrongdoing. They say without systemic change — chiefly a depoliticized, independent judiciary — the party’s twin goals of rooting out corruption and winning back public trust will ultimately founder.“There are too many cases of unjust and false verdicts,” said Shen Zhigeng, a seasoned defence lawyer who has represented scores of government officials. “What ordinary people hate most isn’t corruption, it’s the abuse of the law.”This week, when hundreds of members of the party’s influential Central Committee meet in the nation’s capital, they will undoubtedly endorse the main item on Mr. Xi’s agenda, “governing the country according to law.”
But most analysts agree that any reform proposals are likely to be incremental, and several lawyers expressed pessimism that party leaders would relinquish the power to engineer the outcome of cases that they believe might threaten their authority or the financial fortunes of kin and cronies.“We believe that in reality we’re still working inside an old system that hasn’t gone through any fundamental change,” said Li Xiaolin, a lawyer who for a time represented Bo Xilai, the former Politburo member serving a life sentence on corruption and other charges. “The legal community has this theory that if you don’t strive for rule of law, then each of us could become a victim of lack of rule of law.”For all its zealousness, and the growing roster of the fallen, the party’s campaign against graft operates under its own set of mysterious rules.Given the endemic corruption among Chinese officials and the opacity of the legal system, it remains unclear whether those targeted by party investigators are the most corrupt, or just the ones unlucky enough to have chosen the wrong side in an unseen factional battle.Many lawyers view the case of Zhou Yongkang, the former domestic security chief who is facing charges of violating party discipline, as rich in irony. Once widely feared, Mr. Zhou is at the mercy of his political adversaries, among them Mr. Xi.Once party investigators hand the case over to the police for criminal investigation, most analysts expect Mr. Zhou will be found guilty during a trial that will be choreographed to give the impression of due process.Many defence lawyers say his trial will be a test of whether party leaders are truly committed to legal reform. Few expect the proceedings to adhere to international norms.“Zhou Yongkang was very evil and destroyed rule of law, but he should be tried according to rule of law,” said Tian Wenchang, a partner in King & Capital, one of China’s largest law firms. “But objectively speaking, old habits die hard.”Because Mr. Zhou and most of his family have not been allowed to communicate for more than a year, it is impossible to know the tribulations he may be enduring. But the handful of government officials who have experienced the party’s internal investigation regimen and dared to speak out afterward suggest that less senior bureaucrats can face a harrowing array of cruelties that mount alongside a corruption target’s resistance to full confession, even to crimes that may not have been theirs.Mr. Wang, 51, the former head of the Land and Resources Bureau in the coastal city of Fuqing, was sentenced in November to 10 years in a trial based largely on his confession. His lawyer, Mr. Mao, said the trial was rife with irregularities, and the two men who were said to have bribed Mr. Wang did not testify in the trial last year. (One testified at a second trial after Mr. Wang appealed.)The court dismissed his allegations of torture. Although his claims could not be independently verified by The New York Times, his family was adamant that the torture had taken place, and Mr. Wang’s descriptions parallel those in other cases that have come to light.Such abuses seldom elicit public outrage. Many Chinese assume that the vast majority of officials are tainted by corruption, and they have mostly welcomed the wave of detentions even as they acknowledge that some of the accused may have been swept up for political reasons.Lin Zhe, a scholar at the Central Party School, an institution in Beijing that trains rising officials, dismissed suggestions that politics played a role in determining investigation targets.“The ones who have been taken down have been taken down because they have problems, not because of political issues,” she said.
Wang Qishan, who oversees the party’s anticorruption agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and other officials have said that corruption investigations should adhere to “rule of law,” and that party investigators should hand over cases to the legal authorities more quickly than they do now.In a briefing for members of a state advisory committee in August, he said the campaign would take years, given the entrenched habits of corrupt officials.“It’s like quitting smoking and drinking,” he said. “Can you stop smoking or drinking just like that?”So far, Mr. Xi and Mr. Wang have racked up detentions and arrests that have surpassed even the boldest expectations when they took their posts in November 2012.In the first half of this year, the party punished some 84,000 members for infractions of discipline — a 30 percent increase over the same period last year — with penalties ranging from demotions to ejection from the party, according to official statistics.Mr. Xi has promised to keep up the pressure.“The party and country’s fate has been put in our hands, and we must shoulder this responsibility,” Mr. Xi said, according to a party newspaper in August.But his rallying cry has yet to win over many Chinese lawyers, who say that without systemic change, the campaign is bound to fail and rampant corruption will eventually re-emerge.Borrowing Mr. Xi’s often repeated metaphor of tackling “both tigers and flies” in his drive to uproot graft, Mr. Li, the lawyer who represented Bo Xilai, said, “When your cesspool is still there, and the flies are drawn by the odour, then you can never swat them all.”
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