China's Trials of Its Dissidents May See a Bit of Legal Reform


THE secret trial of Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng would have hardly passed muster under China's pending legal reforms.

The country's most famous democrat and dissident was convicted last December of conspiring to subvert the government and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

At his short trial, barred to foreign observers and attended by only two family members, Mr. Wei's detailed appeal was dismissed in 10 minutes, evidence was twisted, and legal procedures were ignored, according to a report released March 4 by Human Rights Watch in China, a New York-based monitor group.

Details of the Wei trial have leaked out as China weighs unprecedented criminal law reforms to overhaul its politically tainted legal system and eliminate abuses that have suppressed Wei and other Chinese dissidents.

During its two-week legislative session that began March 5, the country's nominal parliament, the National People's Congress, is debating measures to expand defendants' rights, curb illegal detentions, and make judges more impartial. These would be the first changes since criminal procedure law was established in 1979.

To date, China's judicial system has lacked the legal protections of Western nations and has been targeted as unfair by international human rights activists and other critics. The courts have been a part of China's massive security machine, which is manned largely by ill-trained judges recruited from the military.

Since market-style reforms began transforming the socialist economy in the late 1970s, economic change has outpaced modernization of the legal system. Leader Deng Xiaoping and his allies have pushed to bolster rule of law to protect the fledgling market system. But they have been opposed by the pervasive police and security establishment, which ignores laws and does things at its own discretion.

Still, Western observers say the new proposals indicate that some change is under way. ''A lot is actually happening, although the political situation, if not tense, is very tight. There's a lid on it,'' says one international legal expert. ''Since the political system isn't changing, it's remarkable how much the legal system is.''

The new amendments, in the draft stage for two years, are part of the legislature's recent assertiveness in its efforts to restrain other government branches. China is also trying to forestall the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from imposing sanctions for rights violations.

The Chinese Communist leadership is also worried political unrest could erupt as the era of the nonagenarian Mr. Deng comes to an end. Late last week, President Jiang Zemin signed a new law making it easier to impose martial law to curb riots, social upheaval, and national threats.

As about 3,000 delegates from across the country converged on Beijing for their annual session, security has been tightened outside the Great Hall of the People, where the meetings are taking place, and elsewhere in the Chinese capital. The government has been uneasy since a parliamentary official was killed by a policeman robbing his home earlier this month.

Even as the government contemplates new legal protections, Chinese legal experts say current provisions are often circumvented and overridden by the police. The security forces can hold people under investigation for three years without charging them. Defendants are denied access to lawyers. And judges often act like prosecutors, questioning defendants and reaffirming guilt.

''Look at Wei Jingsheng,'' says a Chinese law professor who lost his job for backing the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. ''There are no legal protections if the police say there are no legal protections.''

Wei, who first went to prison in 1979 for helping spearhead China's infant democracy movement, was released in September 1993 and was free for just over six months. He was detained again in April 1994 after renewing his democracy campaign and meeting with foreign officials and journalists but was not formally arrested or charged for 20 months.

At his trial, the dissident was quoted as saying: ''Actions to promote human rights and democracy ... do not constitute a crime and certainly do not constitute the crime of conspiracy to subvert the government.''

In its report, Human Rights in China charges there was little difference between the dissident's trial last December and his first one in 1979. Wei was charged and convicted because of his outspoken criticism of government policies, trying to assist other activists and their families, and soliciting overseas help for his crusade, none of which is illegal under Chinese law, the report says.

His conviction and sentence ''represent a serious miscarriage of justice,'' it said. ''Unfortunately, such practices have been more the rule than the exception in cases involving critics of the Chinese government and make a mockery of [the] very ideal of legal reform.''

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