A former Professor of procedural law at Beijing University recently presided over what he and his associates are calling the Sydney International Criminal Tribunal, short for "The Sydney International Criminal Tribunal to bring the CCP's Crimes Against Humanity".
On 19 August 2005, Professor Yuan Hongbing, clad in a barrister's wig and gown, opened the proceedings before a packed audience of Chinese, at a hall in Sydney's Masonic Centre.
A statement from an indictment presented at the hearing claimed that the verified deaths of Falun Gong practitioners at the hands of the Chinese Government, now at 2781, constitute the nation's "most serious human rights disaster since World War II."
Television cameras were an aggressive presence at the hearing and flash bulbs popped continually with numerous camera-bearing individuals zooming in on members of the audience while Professor Yuan accepted submissions from 13 "plaintiffs" seeking to file a suit against named members, past and present, of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, for acts amounting to persecution and torture.
The purpose of the lawsuit was to "affix the responsibilities for the acts to those that have committed them, in accordance with the principles of international law."
"A mock trial, is it? A piece of theatre to attract media attention?" the Law Society journalist (LSJ) asked the local interpreter.
The interpreter drew back, responding in somewhat reproving tones: "This is not mocking or theatre. It is a very serious matter. You should understand that."
LSJ assured her she fully understood the seriousness of the complaints, "but people just can't set up their own courts, you know. Courts are backed by legislative authority. They need to be able to enforce their orders. What happens if this "court" comes up with guilty verdicts? What will you do then? Have you enquired into your status as a court in Sydney?"
Other "officials" at the court apparently had given little thought to the question of the Sydney International Criminal Tribunal's legal standing.
However, an edited version of an interview with Professor Yuan, reported in The Epoch Times, gives some indication of his thinking in setting up the court.
In the interview he says that past experience shows setting up a court creates history. Before WWII there was no international court anywhere in the world. Since the War, the Western powers have established the Nuremberg Tribunal and the Tokyo International Court. These have been followed by the Hague Tribunal and most recently by the International Criminal Court (ICC), this last set up by more than 60 countries to deal with crimes against humanity occurring henceforth. That excludes those acts of persecution and torture of Falun Gong practitioners prior to the setting up of the ICC.
According to Professor Yuan, all of this means that 'everyone may hear an event.' "A Spanish Court summonsed former Chilean President, Augusto Pinochet, while he was on a visit to London. It sought to arrest him and put him on trial, for crimes against humanity."
Professor Yuan summarises instances where "autocrats utilised their despotic state power to slaughter and maltreat their own people. The crimes that they committed and are committing are the gravest that human beings can imagine… And the most calamitous, heart-wrenching attacks on human rights, conducted in China after the Second World War, are happening in China.
"If the SICT can get other governments to acknowledge a sentence from the Court, any convicted member of the government will not be able to escape that sentence by going overseas."
A New Phenomenon
According to a Falun Gong practitioner, over 10,000 people from across the world signed their support on the web for setting up Yuan-style international tribunals not only in Sydney but in other major cities of the world. "Over 20 democratic parties of Chinese overseas, support this development," the informant said.
Courts set up in Sydney by foreign dissidents are for the moment, however, a new experience for the legal profession. Those experts to whom LSJ referred the question of the Sydney International Criminal Tribunal's legal standing have decided, on reflection, that there is no clear basis for challenging the use of the name unless there should be an attempt to operate a business under the name, or to incorporate an association or give the term some other substantive entity.
It is thought that if it were sought to register the name, the Department of Fair Trading might be likely to use its statutory discretion to refuse permission.
Disapproval of the name was voiced, especially the use of "Sydney" and "Criminal" and it was suggested that a less authoritative name would be preferable.
The man behind the court venture, while freely expressing his abhorrence of the Chinese Government's autocratic disposition and his determination to work for legal reform in the PRC, is much more loathe to speak of himself.
"I am from Inner Mongolia", he told LSJ, in a brief interview conducted before he joined two other speakers at a forum on "China in the spotlight", organised by the Free China Movement a few days before the court hearing, and held at a Chinese restaurant in the Sydney CBD.
Professor Yuan said he was 16 when Mao Tse Tung launched the Cultural Revolution and the military's oppression and wholesale slaughter of his compatriots in Inner Mongolia made him a dissenter.
"Over 300,000 people in Inner Mongolia were imprisoned", he said. "At least 30,000 Mongolia people were killed or committed suicide. At that time the whole of Inner Mongolia was controlled by the army of the Chinese Communist Party." When asked why the Government had done this to its own citizens, he answered: "it is the logic of tyranny."
His hostility to that tyranny, he said, had been encouraged by his reading of the Greek philosophers and the writers of the European Enlightenment.
He had privileged access to these works, he said, through his friendship with a youth whose father was a Minister with responsibility for libraries.
"Of course, one could also gain access to these writings by pretending to use them to denounce capitalism." Like many other intellectual teenagers he was sent to the country to work in a village and remained there for four years.
In 1979, when the Cultural Revolution was petering out, he passed the entrance examination for Beijiing University. He chose law, he said, "because the rule of law is a keystone of democracy."
In 1986 he obtained a Master's degree in Procedural Law and later became Head of the Criminal Procedural Law Department. 'What were you able to teach your students at law school?" LSJ asked.
"In the 1980s, there was a relaxation of control and I could teach the students the true spirit of the rule of law and the necessity for freedom," he said. "In China, whatever the law says, the practice of law is always to centralise power. Any kind of criticism is stopped instantly."
Professor Yuan's father was a journalist who wrote for a major Inner Mongolian newspaper. LSJ wanted to know if he wrote propaganda. "Yes," he said.
After 1989, Professor Yuan came into increasing disfavour with the Government. According to the "China Support Network," organised by Americans to support students after the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Professor Yuan was a popular figure in that movement.
In March 1994 he was arrested in Beijing and secretly transferred to Guizhou where he was detained for about six months.
His release from detention was conditional on his agreement never to return to Beijing, though his wife and daughter live there, and not to involve himself in political activities.
Being keen to complete his book, Freedom in the Sunset, the manuscripts of which had been seized by the authorities, Professor Yuan "accepted the conditions and tolerated all restrictions on him for the next decade."
On July 21, 2004, Professor Yuan arrived in Sydney with a tour group from Guizhou Normal University. He left the group and asked for political asylum in Australia. He has been granted a protective visa.
Mary Rose Liverani is a senior writer and journalist for The Law Society of New South Wales, Australia.
The original article was published in the Law Society Journal in October 2005. The article as it as appears here has been slightly edited to page size.