Cleaning Up China's Secret Police Sleuthing
Wiretapping, email hacking, cell phone tracking and secret videotaping are just a few of the cloak-and-dagger techniques long employed by police in the course of criminal investigations in China.
But now, for the first time, new rules say that police officers applying for permission to employ these so-called "technological investigation measures" will be subject to "rigorous" reviews, without saying by whom.
The stricter rules were written into an amendment to the Criminal Procedures Code that took effect January 1. Details were spelled out in complementary regulation documents recently released by the Ministry of Public Security, the Supreme People's Procuratorate and the People's Supreme Court.
Still waiting to be answered, however, are questions about the amendment's deeper impact. Will the rules put tighter controls on secret investigations by, for example, subjecting police to the rule of law and public scrutiny? Or has the amendment effectively given police more room to maneuver behind closed doors?
Offering a positive spin is Cheng Lei, a professor of criminal procedures at Beijing's Renmin University.
Cheng says the public is justifiably skeptical about the amendment since police for a long time shrouded their investigations in "mysticism." But the amendment, he said, effectively lifted the mystical veil by forcing police to conduct investigations within legal boundaries.
On the other hand, the amendment has raised questions about possible police abuse since it widened the scope of probes qualifying for secret investigations to include, for example, suspected bribery and other forms of official corruption.
Chen Ruihua, a law professor at Peking University, calls secret police investigations a potentially egregious violation of personal liberty and privacy unless controlled via judicial supervision. Even under the new amendment, though, police and prosecutors can launch a secret investigation without a judge's permission, leaving the door open to potential power abuse.
Reigning in Power
China's police have used secret means to chase criminal leads for decades. And during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, authorities abused the power to conduct undercover investigations, turning it into a political tool.
Probes were more closely coordinated inside legal parameters after the National Security Law took effect in 1993, and as a result of provisions in the People's Police Law in place since 1995. These laws gave public security agencies the power to use technological sleuthing "in accord with relevant state regulations and after a rigorous approval process."
But before the latest amendment took effect, there were no "relevant state regulations," and thus no system or legal support for reviewing police applications for secret probes. These gaps left room for government agencies and the Communist Party to get involved in police investigations, said Cheng. Various national security organizations also have access to secret police work.
An effort to raise China's secret investigation practices to international standards prompted a public security ministry regulation in 2000 that says evidence gathered in secrecy cannot be admitted in court. That rule complemented a 1998 regulation that said any information gathered secretly by police could not be shared with the public.
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