HONG KONG — China’s highest court issued demands Thursday that judges bar confessions obtained through torture and avoid applying the death penalty when the evidence is shaky. The directive was unlikely on its own to curb such abuses but reflected a growing official recognition of the need to stop gross injustices, experts said.
The Supreme People’s Court of China published the “opinion” seeking to curtail abuses a week after China’s Communist Party leadership published a set of proposed reforms, including a commitment to end “re-education through labor,” a form of imprisonment without trial or effective judicial overview.
The court document listed many of the problems that lawyers and human rights groups have said plague China’s criminal legal system, including torture by the police, concocted evidence, faulty forensic investigations and a tendency for judges to be swayed by official pressure or inflamed public opinion.
“A defendant cannot be determined as guilty based solely on testimony from the defendant with no other evidence,” said the court’s instructions, which were dated Oct. 9 but published on the official national court website Thursday.
“Testimony of the defendant acquired through torture, freezing, starvation, baking in the sun, roasting, exhaustion and other illegal collection methods shall be excluded,” the instructions said.
The demands mostly repeated previous rules and pronouncements, and the document did not prescribe penalties for violating them. But it demonstrated some official effort to end gross miscarriages of justice, which have battered public confidence in courts, said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group.
“It reads like a catalog of the defects of China’s criminal justice system,” Bequelin said. “It’s generally a reiteration, but it reflects some level of the commitment by the leadership to actually curb the most glaring defects of the criminal justice system.”
In a statement accompanying the opinion, an unidentified supreme court official said, “Only if the defendant’s human rights are given legal protection during the judicial process can we truly avoid the occurrence of false and unjust cases.”
China’s courts, however, come under the control of the Communist Party and are usually deferential to the police and prosecutors, especially in politically sensitive cases