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China Experiments with Open Courts After Years of Secrecy

By Dele Olojede

Zhang Lizhen alleges that the cellular phone he purchased earlier this year from a local dealer is a lemon, and he would like a refund, an apology and reimbursement for legal costs. As lawsuits go, the proceedings in a Beijing People's Court were run-of-the-mill.

What is highly unusual, however, is the scene in the courtroom itself, which is filled with some 170 members of the public, virtually all of whom have come to witness for the first time how cases actually are tried in Chinese courts.

As part of an ongoing effort to reform a mysterious and often mystifying legal system, authorities here have begun to experiment with unfettered public access to courtrooms to allow firsthand experience of how impartially or otherwise the wheel of justice turns.

In the past, an open trial in China had usually meant mob rule, most notably in the 1960s and 1970s when suspects were simply dragged before large crowds, made to wear dunce caps and terrorized into making abject self-criticisms before being subjected to rough justice. But since the 1980s, the system has been divested of its worst excesses, and the judiciary withdrew behind closed doors, despite the law's guarantee of open trials in most cases.

The current experiment with transparency, begun last month, is restricted for the moment to only a handful of courts, mostly in the capital. Officials say they expect eventually to extend it to most courtrooms around the country, thus helping to reduce what one legal scholar here called "the insufficiency of fairness" in the justice system.

The Chinese government hopes, in this era of "reform and opening up," that openness will slowly gain for the law a certain degree of legitimacy with a public that sees it largely as an instrument of governmental power, wielded by bureaucrats and party bosses as exigencies demand. The tentative steps being taken to elevate the rule of law are by no means a sign that human-rights abuses - perhaps the most troublesome aspect of U.S.-China relations - are no longer a widespread phenomenon. Police still have the right, for example, to sentence a suspect to up to three years in labor camp without the inconvenience of a trial. Many judges also reflexively rule in favor of public prosecutors, virtually guaranteeing that the very appearance in court of an accused will result in a guilty sentence.

But the pace of legal reform has noticeably picked up in recent months, particularly since the revised Criminal Procedure Law took effect last year. Now the defense is allowed to cross-examine witnesses, a privilege previously reserved for the prosecution. The law also, more specifically, prohibits police torture to extract confessions, although experts say the practice remains widespread and evidence thus collected continues to be accepted by the courts.