Zhou Qiang, the top Chinese judicial official, gave an uncommon reprimand of justices around China at a conference recently, demanding that they adhere to due process and stop peremptorily expelling lawyers from the courtroom.
It is unusual for someone like Zhou Qiang, a dyed-in-the-wool Party cadre whose job it is to run the judicial system as an obedient organ of the regime and to openly criticize how judges do business in China.
“To be frank, I’m very baffled at why judges always expel lawyers from the court,” he said, referring to a practice that seems to have gained currency over the last year or so. There have been a number of high-profile cases where judges refuse to allow lawyers to make a defense for their clients, and when the lawyers refuse to be silent, are simply booted from the court.
“If they’ve violated the court rules, you can adjourn the court and make public the recording of the trial. The judges should indeed improve their trial ability and change their mindset,” Zhou said at a national high court conference held in Beijing on Jan. 22. A version of his remarks was carried by People’s Daily, the Party mouthpeice.
Many trials have become “a mere formality,” Zhou said, because judges have collaborated with prosecutors and figured out how a trial and sentence will be disposed of before it has even begun.
“Of course, we know what the problem is,” Zhou said. “They’ve coordinated and planned how to sentence the case. But defendant lawyers then mess up their plans. This is precisely what needs to be reformed.”
He added that having the judge directly go against the lawyers upends what the proceedings should be like: “The lawyers don’t go against the prosecutors, but instead against the judges, even taking them as the opposition.”
Zhou did not make reference to any actual recent cases in his comments, but the practice appears to have become common in China. It attracted attention, in particular, in a couple of recent Falun Gong legal cases, where lawyers were expelled from the court before being able to defend their clients.
There was the case of Liu Zhengqing on Dec. 20, 2014, defending two practitioners of Falun Gong at the Qujiang District Court in Shaoguan City of southern China’s Guangdong Province, who was dragged from the court by order of the judge, after attempting to mount a legal defense of his clients.
There was also the notable prosecution of four Falun Gong practitioners charged with the dubious crime of “using a heterodox religion to undermine the implementation of the law,” in Jiansanjiang of northeastern China’s Heilongjiang Province, last December—the lawyers who sought to defend them at various stages were not even informed of an impending court date. On the occasions in which they were able to appear in court, they were also prevented from making a law-based defense for their clients, restricted instead to simply reading a statement of the facts of the case.
“There have been more and more lawyers being driven out of courts,” wrote Chinese lawyer Chi Susheng on his Sina Weibo account. “Lawyers who haven’t been driven out of court are even ashamed to say that they’ve defended cases.”
Another Weibo user calling himself Anhui Xianjingmenfang Guardian remarked: “If the Supreme People’s Court doesn’t hold people accountable, no matter how many rules there are, they’re just empty words. … The rights of defendants and lawyers being harmed by judges relates directly to the Supreme People’s Court’s protection of them.”