China adds to its legal armoury

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Legislation specifying when martial law can be imposed is to be adopted by the Chinese government, in line with President Jiang Zemin's pronouncement this week that political and social stability is crucial for the country's development.

China's Criminal Procedure Law is also being revised as part of the crackdown on crime, making requirements for arrest ``less strict'', lengthening the time a suspect can be held without charge, but also giving defendants earlier access to a lawyer. The draft bills appear designed to provide a legal underpinning to existing government and police powers. The image of China's legal system was tarnished further last week when Wei Jingsheng, the prominent dissident, was jailed for 14 years after being detained without charge for almost 20 months. Yesterday Mr Wei formally filed an appeal against the verdict and sentence, but his chance of success is nil.

The sentence meted out for Mr Wei and the martial-law legislation suggest the government is nervous about the potential for social unrest. But diplomats also welcomed Peking's attempt to spell out more detail for such laws, albeit in a country in whichlegal theory and practice are often far apart.

The draft martial law says a curfew can be imposed "in the event of turmoil, riots or severe disturbances likely to endanger national unity, safety or public security". Inevitably all such moves are seen in the context of an increasingly frail paramount leader, Deng Xiao- ping, 91, whose death is forecast by many analysts as likely to prompt a prolonged power struggle among the top leaders.

The changes to the judicial system are part of attempts to make court procedures more transparent, though the revisions are heavily weighted in favour of the police. Under the rewritten law, the time a suspect can be detained without formal arrest will be increased from 10 to 30 days. It remains to be seen whether this is implemented, given Mr Wei's 20- month detention before charge. Without specifying exactly how, the law will also make arrest requirements "less strict", to aid the crime crackdown.

On the other side, defendants will be able to seek a lawyer's help much earlier. Under the existing rules, lawyers could join proceedings only seven days before a trial.