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UPDATED: March 30, 2015 NO. 14, APRIL 2, 2015
The Right Verdict
Advancing the rule of law can help put an end to miscarriages of justice
By Lan Xinzhen

TOUCHING MOMENT: The parents of Hugjiltu, who was wrongly convicted and executed 18 years ago, hug Tang Ji (second left), a reporter with Xinhua News Agency who contributed to the case's rectification after the court ruled that Hugjiltu was innocent, on December 15, 2014 (REN JUNCHUAN)

At China's annual legislative session, the rule of law was a focal topic. Premier Li Keqiang delivered the government work report at the opening meeting of the Third Plenary Session of the 12th National People's Congress (NPC) on March 5, announcing that 2015 would be crucial to comprehensively advance law-based governance in the country. Laid out in the document was the fact that China will fully promote the law-based governance of the country; build an innovative, clean, service-oriented government with the rule of law; enhance the government's administrative capacity and credibility.

The report also stated that the Constitution is the fundamental guide upon which every action by the government should be based; governments at all levels and their employees must follow it faithfully. The central leadership must see to it that all violations of laws and regulations are investigated and prosecuted, and that all failures to strictly and impartially enforce the law are rectified.

Comprehensively advancing the rule of law was the focus of the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC). At the session, it was made clear that a major task of comprehensively advancing law-based governance is to improve the socialist system of laws with Chinese characteristics—at the heart of which is the Constitution—and strengthen the implementation of the Constitution.

Advancing the rule of law is one of the "Four Comprehensives": to comprehensively establish a moderately prosperous society; deepen reform; advance the rule of law; and strictly govern the CPC.

Enforcing the law impartially and preventing wrongful convictions are the bottom line in establishing and maintaining the rule of law. In the past year, a number of high-profile false convictions have been exposed. Some of the wrongly accused have already been executed and some have suffered years of unjust imprisonment. These cases add a sense of urgency to the advancing of the rule of law.

Zhu Xiaoqing, Vice President of China Law Society and a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), said that the government is vigorously advancing the rule of law, carrying out judicial reform, and doing its best to prevent wrongful convictions. He said that with the advance of the rule of law, future wrongful convictions will be prevented as much as possible and previous ones will be continuously rectified.

A well-known case

At the Spring Festival of 2015, the parents of Hugjiltu—an ethnically Mongolian Chinese citizen believed to be wrongly executed 18 years ago—grieved as they told the media that if their son were still alive today, he would likely have a child of his own.

In April 1996, during a police crackdown on violent crime that was initiated in the 1990s, then 18-year-old Hugjiltu was convicted of sexually assaulting and choking a woman to death in Hohhot, the capital of north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

After 48 hours in custody Hugjiltu confessed that he had raped and killed the woman. Police records show that a sample of dandruff found under Hugjiltu's fingernails matched that of the victim. Hugjiltu was convicted.

Hugjiltu's parents did not believe he could commit such a crime, and they repeatedly pleaded his innocence. Despite this, he was executed in June that year, 61 days after the woman was killed.

In October 2005, a man named Zhao Zhihong confessed that he had raped and murdered 10 women, including the one that Hugjiltu was convicted and executed for allegedly killing.

Hugjiltu's case received widespread public attention after Zhao, also a native of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, came forward and confessed his guilt. The police double checked the case. In 2011, an officer handling the cases told the media that Zhao was able to describe the attack in detail, and showed the police where it had happened. Zhao's execution was postponed. On February 9, the Intermediate Court of Hohhot ruled that Zhao was the real killer. Hugjiltu's parents received compensation of more than 2 million yuan ($323,000).

Hugjiltu's case prompted public discussion of, as well as triggering judicial reforms to prevent, forced confessions and other serious miscarriages of justice.

Impetus for reform

Now the people's congresses, courts and procuratorates across China are reviewing previous cases to hunt down and rectify wrongful convictions. Jiang Bixin, Vice President of the Supreme People's Court (SPC), said that once any wrongful conviction is found, it must be put right.

On March 12, the SPC and Supreme People's Procuratorate (SPP) released their 2014 work reports, revealing that at least five significant wrongful conviction cases were overturned last year.

The SPC's report in particular pointed out that last year Fujian High People's Court ruled that Nian Bin, a resident of Pingtan County was not guilty because "evidence was not sufficient." Before that, Nian had been sentenced to death four times by courts in Fujian Province.

Nian was accused of poisoning the young son and daughter of his former neighbor Ding Yunxia. On the evening of July 27, 2006, Ding and her three children had dinner together with their landlord Chen Yanjiao and Chen's daughter. That evening, Ding's two children and Chen's daughter showed symptoms of poisoning and were sent to hospital. The next morning, Ding's two children died. Police found poison on the cooking utensils. Nian was arrested as a suspect because Ding said that Nian held a grudge against her because she operated a store that competed with his.

In September 2014, the police began to reinvestigate the case. The perpetrator is yet to be identified.

He Jiahong, a professor with Renmin University of China, said he used to blame law enforcement for wrongful convictions, yet after in-depth study, he found that the issue was not so simple.

"If only an extremely small number of cruel and unethical people deliberately created wrongful convictions, then that is their faults. But if some highly regarded law enforcement personnel also make mistakes, and the mistakes are duplicated again elsewhere, then we must conclude that the criminal justice system has defects," he said.

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