Activist's retrial sparks hopes of reform in China

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The Independent Online

Chen Guangcheng, the blind "barefoot lawyer" and activist who was jailed in August, had become a byword for the failings of the Chinese justice system - locked up for over four years on trumped-up charges of stopping the traffic during a village protest.

But in a shock turnaround that has sparked hope of meaningful reform of China's legal system, authorities have overturned a guilty verdict and ordered a retrial in the case, which has become the focus of international and domestic criticism.

His lawyer said an intermediate court had ordered a new trial by Yinan county court in the eastern province of Shandong.

News of Mr Chen's retrial came as human rights groups cautiously welcomed changes to China's death penalty law. They urged China to reveal how many people it executes every year and to introduce more legal reforms.

Under the changes, the Supreme Court will resume its position as the final arbiter on death sentences from the start of next year, ending the practice of allowing executions on the order of lower courts.

China executes more people than the rest of the world combined, with estimates varying between 5,000 and 12,000 killed every year. Capital crimes in China include tax fraud.

Amnesty International said broader reform was necessary. "It is only by abolishing the death penalty that China can guarantee that innocent people will not be put to death," said the rights group's Asia-Pacific programme director, Purna Sen.

The death penalty enjoys a lot of support in China, but recent months have seen a growing number of cases of miscarriages of justice. There was great public sympathy for a migrant worker who killed his boss and several others after the labourer had not been paid for many months. And the case of a butcher who was executed for murdering a waitress who was later found alive struck a chord with people.

China's chief justice said that the move would give help curb miscarriages of justice. The Communist Party is well aware that the current expansion of the economy needs to be underwritten by a functioning legal framework to ensure stability and protect the social fabric. It has made many advances in reforming the political system, but there is often a swift and brutal response to any efforts to undermine single-party rule.

Reforming the legal system in China is not easy. During the period of massive upheaval known as the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1976, many intellectuals were harried, bullied and driven out. Lawyers and judges suffered particularly and the legal system still suffers from a lack of experienced advocates.

Many of the lawyers who are writing the new laws which form the framework for China's wide-ranging programme of reform are young and inexperienced, having studied after the Cultural Revolution.

Mr Chen is one such lawyer, one of a handful of high-profile activists in China who dare to point out the shortcomings of the country's legal system. Although he studied law, he was not allowed to graduate because of his disability. He became a campaigner for disabled people and the rights of farmers.

His reputation, and his fate, was sealed when Time magazine voted him one of China's most influential people, after he criticised local cadres for enforcing harsh population-control measures, including forced abortions and sterilisations.

There has been speculation that China may be allowing a retrial to try to attract the world's attention away from its poor human rights record, as delegates from 48 African states arrived in Beijing for a Sino-African summit. But it may not work.

Lawyers acting for Mr Chen were repeatedly harassed and roughed up when they tried to visit him and his family. Gao Zhisheng, another high-profile legal activist who has campaigned for Mr Chen's release, has himself been charged with inciting subversion.

A hearing in July was cancelled at the last minute. Supporters of Mr Chen said that they were beaten by police and hired thugs.