Friday, January 21, 2011

How they do things in China

Apparently, it's been "a big thing" in China in the last year or two that all police stations have had closed-circuit cameras installed throughout.  It's supposed to be part of a policy to establish more accountability in the police force - and a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that police brutality is a huge problem here, that a substantial proportion of all convictions are based on 'confession' evidence that has been procured by threats, beatings, and torture.  This was the one thing that gave me some hope for a possible favourable outcome in the trial of my friend Wu Yuren: if someone high up in the Justice Ministry - and/or the Politburo - really cares enough about this policy, then maybe they might be willing to use his trial as a flagship case to uphold it, might be willing, just this once, to slap down the police and the Procurator's Office for "losing" or tampering with video evidence.

Of course, there's no real way to ensure that these CCTV systems in police stations are "tamper-proof"; and, as so often in China, there doesn't seem to be any accompanying regime of effective supervision, or of penalties/incentives to improve compliance with regulations.  The supposed requirement that police forces should store all this CCTV footage for a minimum of six months is unlikely to be much observed.

And Wu Yuren's trial date was not announced until nearly six months after his detention (and beating in the Jiuxianqiao Police Station in north-east Beijing); the police did not respond to the presiding judge's order to release the relevant videotapes for a further two months - by which time they had, of course, been deleted.  But the police had complied with the new regulations, right?  Oh yes.

If the folks in the Ministry of Justice are even half-way serious about this campaign to try to improve police behaviour in China, they need to extend that period for preserving video records to at least one year - and introduce mandatory time limits for the key stages in the criminal prosecution process.  (It's looking as though Wu might possibly spend longer awaiting the outcome of his trial than he would actually be sentenced to if found guilty.)


JES said...

The Missus's job with the Innocence Project of Florida has sensitized us both to issues like, Was the confession coerced? Getting police and prosecutors -- at least in Florida -- to videotape all interrogations has proved to be more challenging than anyone would think. When she asked a friend, who just happens to be the county sheriff, why this should be so, he said something like, "That would tie our hands."

Trying to project this point of view into what I know of the Chinese criminal-"justice" system sets off all sorts of dissonance in my lefty head.

Froog said...

Is your wife still involved in that work? Sounds very interesting. I know these aren't uniquely Chinese problems. In fact, the States, and especially the southern States, are rather notorious examples of bad practice. I worked for a while on a capital appeals project in New Orleans - you don't end up on death row unless you're too poor to afford your own lawyer and too crazy or simple-minded or obnoxious to make a sympathetic impression on the jury; severity of the offence, and even guilt or innocence, have almost nothing to do with it.

Obviously there are huge practical problems with installing and maintaining this sort of equipment, and how you store the tapes and so on. I think the only way you can make it work is if the courts are really strict in demanding access to this evidence, make it a policy that cases will be thrown out if the police can't produce full and unedited tapes for the relevant times (particularly when, as here, it's a case of someone allegedly committing an offence while already in police custody!).