Acquittals show Beijing's resolve to improve rule of law

CHINA - Grief turned into despair for Anhui native Yu Yingsheng when he was arrested and later convicted of killing his wife, who was found dead at home.

He was sentenced to life in prison and several attempts to have it overturned failed.

On Tuesday, nearly 17 years after his ordeal first began in December 1996, Mr Yu walked out a free man after a high court in central Anhui threw out his conviction, citing insufficient evidence. His age is not known.

Bursting into tears at being acquitted, Mr Yu told the court: "I can see the rays of justice now, and I hope the authorities will nab the real culprit soon."

There has been a string of acquittals, some on the ground of wrongful conviction, by Chinese courts this year.

Observers say these are part of efforts by President Xi Jinping and new Chief Justice Zhou Qiang to boost public trust in the judiciary.

The courts are under the purview of the Chinese Communist Party, with judges often viewed as political tools and corrupt.

"These cases stem from a growing consensus among the judiciary officials I meet of the need to improve the public credibility of the legal system," Wuhan University law professor Qin Qianhong told The Straits Times.

"Of course, one consideration for the leaders in overturning wrongful convictions could be to boost public support for the party," Prof Qin added.

Mr Yu's acquittal is a case that the party can easily hold up to show its resolve to ensure justice for the wrongfully convicted.

State media reported on Tuesday that the party's political and legal commission, which oversees the judiciary system, has issued a set of guidelines aimed at preventing wrongful convictions, the first time it has done so.

A key clause stipulates that judges, prosecutors and police will bear "lifelong responsibility" for any role they play in wrongful judgments.

The guidelines require investigators to transfer all evidence - whether or not it proves a suspect's guilt - through the chain of command, while interrogations must take place with visual and audio recordings at all times.

Besides the guidelines, there have also been efforts to provide redress.

In May, the Supreme Court ordered all courts to work out compensation for the wrongly convicted by basing it on the daily salary of an average worker, which works out to 182.35 yuan (S$38).

This means Mr Yu can expect some 1.1 million yuan in compensation, reported The Beijing News daily on Wednesday.

Legal experts like Renmin University law professor Chen Weidong are cheering the latest set of guidelines, though some still believe that more needs to be done.

"The provision did not come easily. It is the result of decades of experience and lessons in judicial practice. Compared with correcting miscarriages of justice, it's more pressing and important to work out preventive measures," Prof Chen told the official Xinhua news agency.

The Guangzhou Daily said in an editorial on Wednesday that the police and judiciary must do away with their pursuit of a 100 per cent crime-solving rate.

Prof Qin said the key question is whether the push to improve the rule of law is a short-lived endeavour by the new leadership.

"If there's no long-term will, there won't be real structural changes, and the guiding principles will remain mere words," he added.

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