China courts lift veils but keep courtroom closed

BEIJING (AP) — China’s notoriously opaque courts have suddenly embraced social media to provide a window into their proceedings, to boost a skeptical public’s confidence in the country’s Communist Party-controlled legal system.

Nearly 1,000 Chinese courts have set up microblog accounts. One in central China released a blow-by-blow of a murder appeal last week, complete with a photo of the convict signing his verdict in handcuffs.

Another court in the southwest has released transcripts of 39 cases on social media since May. A Beijing court held a rare online question-and-answer chat session last week about a high-profile rape trial. And perhaps most surprisingly, the long-awaited trial of fallen Politburo member Bo Xilai in August was largely tweeted directly from the courthouse.

China’s courts are releasing information online to build an image of transparency and improve accessibility. Chinese legal scholars and lawyers applaud the moves but warn they may be more about propaganda than transparency. Courtroom audiences remain tightly controlled, and the courts can easily filter sensitive information as they release details via Twitter-like feeds. Lawyers are barred from discussing their cases online.

“If they are sincere, why not open the court trials to all on a first-come, first-serve basis and open up the docket after the trial for all to see?” asked Shanghai lawyer Wu Pengbin. “Why bother with microblogging?”

Legal experts also say there is no reason to believe that the changes are a step toward judicial independence, because the Communist Party remains firmly in control of the courts.

“It would be revolutionary if the gate is thrown wide open. Legal injustice will have nowhere to hide, but the corrupt and the powerful will obstruct the process to prevent their evil acts from being exposed,” said He Bin, a law professor at the Chinese University of Political Science and Law.

Under Chinese law, legal cases that do not involve national security or minors should be open, but in reality, court proceedings and documents are often closed to the public and sometimes even to litigants and their attorneys.

Public attendance at high-profile trials is tightly controlled. The courts assign seats to trusted persons while turning down journalists and members of the public on grounds of limited courtroom space.

The opaqueness and the lack of independence of the Chinese courts have severely hurt their credibility among members of the public, and officials have taken note. In a sign of dissatisfaction, the annual work report by the Chinese Supreme Court received, embarrassingly, a record number of opposition and abstaining votes in the last National People’s Congress.

He, the law professor, said the newly appointed Supreme Court president, Zhou Qiang, has been under pressure to improve the courts’ reputation and has found a breakthrough in promoting openness. The Sina Weibo microblogging of Bo’s trial was especially well-received, He said.

“Openness is the precondition of justice,” He said. “The move has been welcomed by both the legal community and the public.”

State media have reported that Zhou urged senior judges and media officers from local courts to catch up with new media, and said the courts should not only release information in a timely manner but also respond to questions and misunderstandings online. Chinese courts at various levels set up 955 accounts on Sina Weibo by September, according to state media.

In southwest province of Guangxi, a three-member team for a district court in the city of Wuzhou has released transcripts of 39 trials through Sina Weibo since May, covering disputes over medical costs, divorces and failures to repay debts. The team leader, who only gave her last name, Chen, said the presiding judges choose which cases get to be publicized based on whether they “provide lessons or have public interests.”

While Wuzhou’s court microblog remains in relative obscurity with about 5,600 followers, the Jinan court that tried Bo Xilai has 570,000 followers. The microblog account for Beijing courts has 470,000; that account has provided live Weibo feeds on the trial of a man who hurled a 2-year-old girl to her death, and the trial of a businesswoman accused of bribing a former railway minister.

A Beijing court also turned to the account in announcing the verdict for a gang-rape case involving a 17-year-old son of celebrity singers, while also holding a rare online question-and-answer session regarding the case.

State media have geared up to tout the efforts. Last Friday, the party-run People’s Daily praised the new “responsive judiciary” and said it was bonding with the people’s hearts.

“The court trials are clearly stepping into an open, responsive model of democratic discussion from a relatively enclosed system,” the editorial read. “Responsive judiciary is a requirement of rule of law and of a democratic society.”

Li Xuan, a law professor at the Central University of Finance and Economics, said he welcomes any degree of openness.

“Selective openness is better than no openness,” Li said. “It grants the public’s right to know and helps ensure the watchdog role of the public opinion. We are certainly hopeful that it will gradually extend to all cases one day with progressive improvement in thinking.”

But he noted a recent legal interpretation by China’s Supreme Court that has barred lawyers from using their own microblogs to share court proceedings. “That is contradictory to broadcast trials on a court’s microblog, while denying lawyers the right to microblog the case,” Li said.

“We are concerned that the courts would only publicize cases when it is to their advantage,” he said, adding that the courts also can censor details of trials that they mention on microblogs.

The court in the eastern city of Jinan that tried Bo released chunks of the courtroom transcript in near-real time by microblog, including a step-by-step narration of the proceedings, video and audio testimony from key witnesses and photos from inside the 110-seat chamber.

However, court officials meticulously scrubbed politics from their Weibo feed to avoid broader political implications, including details — initially included in a transcript but then deleted from the feed — that Bo told the court he followed directives from a higher-ranking politician in covering up a failed defection by a top aide. The Weibo feed for his verdict announcement also failed to mention that Bo protested the injustice aloud after the court convicted him of corruption charges and sent him to life in prison, according to a source with direct knowledge of the proceedings.

Critics have said the court’s ostensible openness was only to provide a veneer of legitimacy to a political case whose verdict had long been determined by China’s top leadership.

“The entire case has been done in darkness,” human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang said. “How could the microblogging of the trial be any sign of judicial openness?”

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