Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lawyer trouble in Chongqing

Lauren Hilgers

The Chongqing mafia trials have, for months, provided ample tabloid fodder for Chinese newspapers. Drug runners, madams, murderers and corrupt local officials have all made their way through the municipality's courts, offering generous opportunities for the public to speculate on their lewd and immoral behavior. In the last two months, however, the most sensational trial has belonged not to a criminal mastermind, but to an outspoken criminal defense attorney.

The fate of Li Zhuang, a 48-year-old lawyer from Beijing, has opened nationwide debate on the challenges that trial lawyers face in China and thrown a spotlight on the disdain with which the public and judiciary consider criminal defense lawyers, in particular.

Li arrived in Chongqing late last year to take up the defense of Gong Gangmo, a local man accused of drug-running and murder. Gong's family, it was reported in the media, was paying a high price for the Beijing lawyer. "Li Zhuang, who values his own status greatly, was willing to come to Chongqing to take on this organized crime because Gong Gangmo's business partner invited him to "salvage people,"" the China Youth Daily later reported. "But most of all he came because he wanted to make money."

Li arrived to a climate that was less than friendly. Other lawyers had complained about difficulties meeting with their clients and gathering information. Before he arrived, the Chongqing judicial bureau had issued an opinion banning contact with the media and advising lawyers to "stress politics, think about the big picture and obey the rules."

Things started going downhill for Li in early December. After meeting with Gong a few times, Li's client turned and pointed the finger at his lawyer, claiming to police that Li had enticed him to give false testimony about his treatment in prison. Later, Gong told a television crew that Li had expressed this to him through a series of tell-tale winks.

Gong's testimony was really all it took. Two days after the accusations were made, Li was soon in custody, charged with "abetting Gong with retracting former testimony," "abetting Gong to lie about being tortured," "abetting Gong to interfere with court order" and "reading Gong's accomplice's transcripts to Gong." Twenty-eight days after that (although none of the seven witnesses that had testified against him showed up in court) Li was sentenced to 30 months in prison.

The charges brought against Li were made under Article 306 of China's criminal law, a notorious article that makes it a crime to "destroy or forge evidence, help any parties destroy or forge evidence, or coerce or entice witnesses into changing their testimony in defiance of the facts or into giving false testimony." It sounds reasonable, but the article is often criticized for being used to target defense attorneys. So much so that its critics have nicknamed the article "lawyer killer."

Li, it appeared, was determined not to go down so easily. He vowed to appeal and called on "China's 160,000 lawyers" to fight against violations of the criminal law. On February ninth, however, Li's appeal took a weird turn. When Li appeared in court for a second time, he had become a sensation; condemned by local media and rallied to by Beijing rights lawyers. No matter their outlook on the case, no one expected Li to stand up at his appeals trial and give a stonily-delivered confession in six points. "I believe that the verdict in the first trial was clear, the evidence was concrete, the law was properly applied and the process was in accordance with the law," he said.

A week later, the appeals court reduced Li's sentence from 30 months to 18. Apparently not what Li had expected, the lawyer made a rush for the microphone, accusing judiciary officials of breaking their promise to him. He asked his supporters to study his confession carefully, and they did. It soon came out in the media that, taking the first and last characters from each sentence, you get a retraction. "Forced into the guilty plea with a reprieve, and will appeal when I'm out," the hidden message says.

To the disappointment of some of his supporters, Li clearly had no intention of martyring himself in the name of social justice. But, as the smoke clears from his trial, the debate over Article 306 continues and everyone is reminded once again--any defense lawyer in China has a dangerous job.

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