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Li Qinghong was a real estate businessman who had his start in the mining industry. On March 25, 2010, he was sentenced by the City Court in Guiyang, the capital of southwestern province of Guizhou, to 19 years of prison for alleged involvement in organized crime. Four months later, the Guizhou Provincial Court remanded the case due to “lack of factual clarity” (原审事实不清), and the Guiyang City prosecution withdrew its case. Yet, even before the Guizhou Provincial Court remanded the case, the Guiyang City Police somehow set up a team to re-investigate the case. On August 26, the case was re-prosecuted in the Guiyang City Xiaohe District Court. The number of defendants had also increasing from 17 to 57, and among them were seven of the witnesses from the first trial.
The Li case is a typical example of the “crackdown on organized crime” (打黑运动) spreading from the western metropolis of Chongqing to the whole nation. The crackdowns usually target private entrepreneurs, with tight collaboration between the police, the prosecution and the court, all led by the local Political and Legislative Committee. Often confessions are extorted by torture. If the Li case had gone as planned, it would have been a landmark achievement by authorities in Guizhou.
Yet, the defense lawyers’ response complicated the situation. Zhou Ze (@周泽律师), one of Li’s defense attorneys, started revealing the details of the case on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. Netizen attention to the case has grown ever since. On September 3, 2011, he published a letter online asking help from other lawyers, resulting in more than 30 to-flight lawyers from all over China joining the defense team Zhou described as an “All-Star Team” (史上最强大辩护律师团).
“The Last Defense”
The mass attention dedicated to the case was not due to the details of the case, which were neither unique nor complicated. All of the defense attorneys who are active on Weibo claim that the documents and evidence provided by the prosecution were enough to show that the case was fabricated. As defense attorney Wu Lei (@伍雷) said: “The facts are clear enough. None of the charges can be supported by the evidence. The case is artificially made up based on false confessions.” Instead, what was significant about this case was the frequent breaches of procedural law during the proceedings. “The case is the sum of all breaches of procedural law,” said defense attorney Si Weijiang (@斯伟江) comments. Thus, for the defense, the hearings from January 9 to 14 and from June 8 to July 18 of 2012 were not only investigations of the facts but a fight for procedural justice. Within the first few days, four lawyers were expelled by the court because of their sharp arguments about procedural concerns.
During the process to exclude illegally obtained evidence, more than ten defendants described in detail how they were tortured. In response, the prosecutors provided a written explanation by the Guiyang City Police claiming that officers obtained the evidence lawfully. However the officers were not allowed to testify in court because of “security concerns” (安全的考虑). Despite the defense’s strong protest, the court dismissed all their requests to exclude allegedly unlawful evidence.
During cross-examination , the prosecutors provided only written testimony but refused to let witnesses testify. Thanks to the defense’s requests and the defendants kneeling down begging the judge, eight witnesses were allowed to testify, or 2.5% of all the witnesses. Several alleged in court that their confessions were made up, with one claiming that he was tortured.
The battle between the bar and law enforcement extended off the court. Before the re-opening of the hearings in June, 22 defense attorneys from outside Guizhou Province were dismissed by their clients and replaced by local attorneys who were more susceptible to control by local law-enforcing officials. On July 10, despite huge risks, several defendants revealed that the officers of the District Court made a deal with them: Defendants who fired their non-Guizhou counselors would receive lenient sentences. Others even disclosed that the police had covertly investigated some lawyers. The shock of those testimonies to the bar was immense. As defense attorney Yang Xuelin (@杨学林律师) described: “Today is the darkest since I began defending the case…The criminal defense system in China is near its doomsday.”
The defense launched a war on all fronts, from requesting the court to remove Li’s irons before his self-defense, to publicly unveiling details of law enforcement’s opaque operations. Halfway during the hearing, some defendants petitioned to re-hire the non-Guizhou lawyers they had been forced to fire. In addition, impressed by the courage of the non-Guizhou attorneys, local counselors became more active and incisive in their defense, making the previous deal with the court meaningless. Unable to withstand the challenges brought by the defense, the prosecutors gave up introducing evidence, and stopped responding to the defense’s cross-examination. However, few read the prosecution’s retreat to necessarily mean a ruling of innocence.
From the defense attorneys’ perspective, the defense protected not only the defendants’ rights, but the future of the bar as an independent, functioning part of the justice system. “The reason why I devoted myself wholeheartedly, facing such huge pressure, to the defense is that the case would be either a milestone or a tombstone for the Chinese justice system. We are not only doing this for Li and ourselves, but for the future of everyone,” defense attorney Zhu Mingyong(@朱明勇律师) wrote. The case was an indicator of whether the laws excluding illegally obtained evidence, witness testimonies and the criminal defense system as a whole would be effectively practiced thereafter. Lawyer Zhang Qingsong(@张青松律师) exclaimed, “This is the last defense, a life-or-death moment for the rule of law and for criminal defense!”
However, the results of the ruling, released on July 23, was depressing to observers. Although some of the defendants were judged innocent, Li Qinghong was sentenced to 15 years in prison for leading organized crime. Defense attorney Zhang Lei (@青石律师) expressed his desperation after the ruling. “The justice system has lost ability to adjust any mistake. It has become a tool for the personal interests of some officials. If people had not seen that clearly, the ruling declared to everyone the bankruptcy of the justice system. Trust in the government is eroded by those abusing the system.”
Nevertheless, despite the ruling, some still recognize the significance of the defense. @斯伟江 wrote, “As the ruling suggests, the defense didn’t make a practical difference because of the hostility of law enforcement toward the lawyers. Yet, the public nature of the defense showed people the reality of the justice system. From this perspective, the struggle isn’t in vain.”
Social media: let’s take it outside
On Weibo, the lawyers acted like professional journalists, covering all sorts of relevant information from details like “the prosecutors’ microphones are louder than the defense’s,” to typos in the indictment, to overall analyses of the case. Throughout the 47-day trial, the defense posted more than 1,000 tweets in total, some even giving real-time updates during the sessions. Zhang Lei (@青石律师) documented the hearings by daily online journal entries, which exceeded a total of 300,000 Chinese characters (about 250,000 words in English). During the court debate, many even published their speeches of defense on Weibo.
For many netizens, following the case every day became a habit. As @上海快乐宅男 writes, “Zhang’s daily journal is a must-read for me before I sleep, no matter how late it is or how tired I am.” Because of the influence of social media, scholars, lawyers and netizens went to Guiyang to observe the trial one after another, and also tweeted their observations on Weibo.
One of the major reasons why attorneys are so active on social media is the absence of traditional media coverage. In the court, some seats were reserved for the People’s Daily, China Central Television (CCTV), Xinhua News Agency and other state-owned media. But their reporters rarely showed up and they hardly covered the case. Other media outlets were mostly silent as well, since the court made it difficult to get into the court and interview the judiciary officers.
Some netizens were concerned that the domination of defense’s voice online made it impossible to know the truth objectively. But in lawyer Wang Xing (@律师王兴)’s opinion, attorneys are not the ones to blame. “Lawyers aren’t responsible for reporting the truth objectively; it’s the job of traditional media to hear both sides. However, censorship of the news disabled the media from hearing the voices of the judiciary. It’s not the lawyers’ fault.”
As a recent phenomenon, lawyers’ online activities can be traced back to the influential case of Li Zhuang, a lawyer falsely prosecuted with perjury in Chongqing, in 2010. While the voices of the official media framing and blaming Li were dominating public opinion, the defense had no choice but to tell the other side of the story via social media. A year and a half later, when the defense in a murder case in the coastal city of Beihai, Guangxi, were accused of fabricating evidence, the defense also used social media as part of their defense strategy. The influence they gained online not only balanced the voice of the official media, but also helped with their personal safety. But in the Li Qinghong case, the social media served beyond those two purposes. The bar hoped that, by raising netizens’ awareness, this single case could leave a positive impact on the Chinese justice system as a whole.
No one knows whether that goal will be reached. Just as the result of the first instance showed, Chinese lawyers still have a long way to go to improve the Chinese justice system. Still, to everyone’s comfort, the situation lawyers face has improved in the two years since the Li Zhuang case. As lawyer Chen Guangwu (@陈光武律师) observes: “During the Li Zhuang case, local attorneys were too intimidated to even greet lawyers from elsewhere; in Beihai, local lawyers could only make eye-contact with us in public and secretly express their regards. But this time, lawyers from Guizhou fought bravely with non-local lawyers in court, and they were extremely helpful off the court as well. Many thanks to the local lawyers.”