In Chongqing, A Rare Win for the Defense

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The odds didn’t seem good for Li Zhuang. A defense attorney who had already once fallen afoul of the law, Li was back on trial this week in Chongqing, the southwestern Chinese megacity that has been waging a very public campaign against organized crime. In 2009, as the anti-gang campaign was starting, Li briefly represented Gong Gangmo, a gang boss who was later convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for multiple felonies, including running a criminal organization, order a hit on a rival and drug trafficking.

But before Chongqing prosecutors finished with his client, they went after Li, accusing him of fabricating evidence and obstructing justice. Gong testified against his former lawyer, saying Li instructing him to lie and say he was forced to confess under torture. Li was convicted on Jan. 8, 2010 and later sentenced to a year-and-a-half in prison. He alleged that the authorities reneged on a deal that would have allowed him to escape jail time in return for confessing. (See my 2010 story on Li and the Chongqing crackdown here.)

With his prison term set to expire this summer, Li, 49, faced new charges that he incited a witness to lie in a 2008 Shanghai embezzlement case. Then, in a brief hearing Friday morning, prosecutors announced that in light of unspecified new evidence, they were withdrawing the case against Li. If no further charges are laid against him, Li could go free in June. It was a surprising turnabout. Many in China’s legal community question whether he was being punished for merely doing his job, and that by mustering a robust defense for Gong he was threatening to tarnish a popular campaign against organized crime. Earlier this month the legal scholar He Weifang wrote an open letter asking whether Li was given a fair trail, noting his accusers didn’t face cross examination and arguing that in the midst of Chongqing’s crackdown “the most basic neutrality of the court had already vanished.”

Chongqing’s war on crime has been led by Bo Xilai, a charismatic politician who has made a name for himself as a graft buster. The son of a prominent Communist Party elder, Bo has leveraged the Chongqing campaign to raise his national stature. A year ago he was considered a long shot for elevation to the politburo’s standing committee, China’s top governing body. Since then Bo’s crackdown and his efforts to cultivate Mao-era patriotism have earned the endorsement of Xi Jinping, who is widely expected to replace President Hu Jintao in the leadership transition that should begin next year. As a result, Bo himself is now discussed as a likely candidate for elevation to the standing committee.

Bo’s improved fortunes owe much to the crackdown. Given that upon his release from prison Li might offer a less-than-glowing review of the methods employed by police, prosecutors and judges, some legal observers saw the latest charges as a way of ensuring that he remained behind bars until after 2012.

This has been a dark time for the rule of law in China. Lawyers have been one of the targets in China’s recent political crackdown. At least seven disappeared into some sort of police custody since February, not counting Gao Zhisheng, who has been missing for more than a year. In recent days two of the detained lawyers have been released. One of those still missing, Tang Jitian, spoke to me in support of Li Zhuang a year ago. Tang said he didn’t known Li. The work Li did defending high-profile criminal suspects could be seen as different from the sort of human rights work that Tang did, such as defending members of the banned Falun Gong sect, farmers who have had their land confiscated and families with children poisoned by tainted milk. But Tang recognized the right to legal representation as a basic human right, whether the client is a gang leader or a dispossessed farmer. And he considered the threat to someone like Li Zhuang as a threat to all lawyers.

Chen Youxi, one of Li’s attorneys, called his client’s win today “a victory for rule of law in China.” He added that there was no way that prosecutors would be able to find new charges with which to pursue Li. But one could understand if Li Zhuang waited until he was out of prison to celebrate.