China| Liu Xiaobo case indicative of harsh sentencing trend for freedom of expression

posted on 01.05.2010 by

Sarah Cook, Asia Research Analyst and Assistant Editor of Freedom House, writes: “When Chinese democracy activist and author Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison last week, many around the world appeared stunned by the length of his sentence and absence of due process rights. Such harsh punishment for offering rational, constructive criticism of the government seems more compatible with Soviet times or Burma’s ruling junta than the modernized economic world power that China has become.

Unfortunately, Liu’s sentencing – in all its injustice and absurdity – is symptomatic of more systemic problems and politicization of the Chinese legal system, particularly in so-called “sensitive” cases. Moreover, in the past two years, signs have emerged that the situation may be getting worse, not better.

Over the past three decades, the Chinese legal system has been built from scratch – thousands of laws have been passed, judges trained, and state-of-the art courthouses built. Under this external facade of modernity, however, lies a system that still falls far short of the rule of law.

The Chinese Communist Party exercises significant influence over the judicial system via its political-legal committees and power to appoint judges, most of whom are party members and subject to its disciplinary procedures. Whether because of direct orders from the local party committee or fear of reprisals from other state actors, judges’ autonomy to decide cases based on the law and evidence remains circumscribed.

In recent years, greater space has been granted in commercial cases, disputes between private individuals, and some administrative decisions. Nevertheless, judicial independence remains dramatically curtailed in socio-economic and politically sensitive cases, where lawsuits may be automatically rejected and verdicts are routinely predetermined. Hence the need for no more than a few minutes or hours per trial. [...]

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