Amend legal procedures

Updated: 2011-09-01 08:13

(China Daily)

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Disputes arose as soon as the full text of the proposed amendments to the Criminal Procedure Law was published to solicit public opinions.

In spite of the broad consensus that the new draft has plugged some obvious loopholes in the current law, and may thus offer better protection for the civil rights of criminal suspects, there are prevailing worries as to whether it will also open up bigger loopholes that may substantially undermine human rights.

While everyone, except those charged with law-enforcement perhaps, can applaud the new stipulations against torture and self-incrimination, there are concerns about the amendments' explicit endorsement of police concealment of information regarding suspects. The doubts are concentrated on clauses 30, 36 and 39, which relate to living under surveillance, police custody, and arrest.

Under normal circumstances, the police are under a legal obligation to notify a suspect's immediate relatives of his or her situation and whereabouts within 24 hours after the suspect is placed under surveillance, in police custody, or arrested. But each of the three clauses exempts that obligation in instances where "it is impossible to notify", or those suspected of a "crime of endangering State security, or crime of terrorism, and notifying relatives may possibly impede investigation".

To many, the excluded scenarios may serve as separate and independently sufficient pretexts for police abuse. The pessimists have even foreseen the prevalence of "secret arrests" under such rules.

Proponents of the amendments, on the other hand, argue that these are actually signs of progress, because they make the exceptions specific. The current law allows police departments not to notify relatives if they consider doing so may impede an investigation or it is impossible to do so.

Considering the present law's evident ambiguity on this point, clarifying exceptions does constitute progress. But let us be honest - it is far from sufficient. Which is why worries of abuse are both legitimate and well-founded.

For one thing, the crime of endangering state security is a vague and sprawling conception. Without proper definition and limitations, it is highly vulnerable to abuse. The impossibility of notification and the possibility of impeding investigations are even harder to define and clarify.

The potential threats to civil liberty in the new draft may also arise in cases where anonymous eyewitnesses are employed, or where "technical" and "secret" means are used against those suspected of certain criminal offenses.

Eyewitnesses must be protected. And for them there is no better cover than anonymity. But when their testimonials are used to convict uninformed others, there have to be rigid rules to make sure the process is just and unbiased.

Although the draft promises "strict approval procedures" for the use of "technical" and "secret" means of evidence gathering, there are no specifics given. This may cause severe civil rights violations, because the draft authorizes all police authorities above the county level to approve secret investigations should they consider it necessary. Such are the holes that may compromise the rights of private citizens.

(China Daily 09/01/2011 page8)


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