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China Orders Courts to Record, Video All Trial Proceedings

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Ding Wenqi  |  Radio Free Asia

A court in southern China's Hunan province, Feb. 9, 2015. Photo courtesy of CHRD
A court in southern China’s Hunan province, Feb. 9, 2015. (courtesy of CHRD)

China’s highest court has ordered courts at all levels to record video footage of all trials, but lawyers say they fear the video could be used to target them for defending their clients in court.

The Supreme People’s Court issued new rules that come into effect on March 1 in a bid to “improve transparency in court proceedings,” the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

“The whole process of all trials should be recorded via both audio and video, and voice recognition used in court text records,” it quoted a court document as saying.

“Courts nationwide should upload in-court audio and video recordings on online platforms devoted to judicial information disclosure for involved parties and lawyers to consult,” it said.

Anhui-based activist and former state prosecutor Shen Liangqing said the new rules are a step forward, but still leave the judicial process open to widespread abuse, especially where political trials and prisoners of conscience are concerned.

“I think a more important issue is that where stability maintenance is concerned, they have surveillance video on file, but when you ask to see it, they tell you that it isn’t working,” Shen said.

“So I don’t see this rule as any more than a cosmetic measure to try to guarantee the impartiality of the courts [in the eyes of the public],” he said.

State secrets

The new rules provide special guidelines for cases involving “state secrets,” a classification which is increasingly used to target critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Content involving commercial secrets and that touches on personal privacy will also be treated in a specified manner.

The classification of cases as “state security” matters already means that detainees can be held in an unknown location and denied permission to meet with their lawyers for six months.

There are also signs that the recordings could be used against defense lawyers.

“If the litigants and observers violate the provisions of the court discipline or the relevant laws and regulations and endanger the security of the court, or disturb court order, the People’s Court may … use the recordings as evidence of legal liability in any subsequent investigation,” the rules state.

Rights lawyer Cai Ying, who was among hundreds of lawyers and rights activists detained and questioned during nationwide operation that started on July 9, 2015, said the taping of trials won’t do much to ensure that human rights are protected in China’s judicial system.

“It may be helpful in run-of-the-mill cases, but it’s a fake measure where the bigger cases are concerned,” Cai told RFA.

“It’s important for the interrogation process to be recorded as well, [to avoid] cases of forced confession,” he said. “But that didn’t happen during the July 9 crackdown.”

“This rule isn’t going to be of much help from a human rights perspective,” he said. “It all sounds very good, but it’s not about what the rules say, it’s about what actually happens in practice.”

‘A weapon to be used’

Pan Renqiang, a retired judge in the central province of Hubei, agreed.

“What is the law but a weapon to be used [by the government] when it is useful to them and to be dropped by them when it isn’t?” Pan said.

“They will only make public that which benefits the government, so where’s the point in that?” he said.

“They should allow an independent media to cover it instead,” he said.

Rights lawyer Ma Lianshun said the rules will soon be ignored in cases where the government is in the wrong, and could be used to target lawyers trying to defend clients.

“They’ll record it when a defense attorney is protesting or if they are saying anything they think is inappropriate.”

“They’ll record that, to use as evidence,” Ma said.

“One of the pieces of evidence used against [Beijing rights lawyer] Wang Yu was of her losing her temper in court,” he said.

Physical attacks

Hundreds of lawyers and rights activists have reported an increase in physical attacks on lawyers by court officials in recent years.

In 2015, Beijing-based lawyer Cui Hui said she was attacked by judges and bailiffs at the Tongzhou District People’s Court on the outskirts of Beijing on April 2 after she went to file a complaint over its inaction in a case that should have been resolved two years earlier.

Last October, Guangxi-based lawyer Wu Liangshu and fellow attorneys Li Jing, Zhao Hexu and Dong Qianyong accused “courts throughout the country” of continuing to violate the personal rights of lawyers going about their jobs, including violent assaults by court security staff.

Around 1,000 lawyers signed a statement in June 2016 condemning an attack on Wu, whose trousers were ripped off by police officers at a district court in Nanning after he refused to hand over his cell phone for inspection.

“If a judge rips off a lawyer’s trousers in court, then it’s just a small punishment, but if a lawyer ripped off a judge’s trousers, they’d probably get a heavy jail sentence,” Cai said.

Sun Dongsheng, a petitioner from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang who has been frequently targeted by the authorities for trying to complain about them, said said he doesn’t see how the rules could guarantee his rights in court.

“I think it’s just another excuse to collect data and information about ordinary people,” Sun said. “If you do something that they don’t like, they will turn your just actions into injustice.”

“Then they make the data fit with this view to oppress you.”

Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

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