Jun 11, 2013 05:03 PM

The Show Trial that Fell Short


The trial of former Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun is the center of public debate.

This was a complex case, involving more than 477 dossiers of related documents. Yet the trial was executed with astonishing efficiency and concluded in less than half a day.

Behind it were the workings of a show. Indeed Liu demonstrated in court that he was a mature politician. From a glimpse on TV, the sharp expressions of his eyes couldn't be missed, betraying his insights into Chinese society.

Liu accepted all charges and pleaded for leniency in punishment with a tearful statement. He even made reference to the trending concept of the Chinese dream, a telling example of how deeply he understood the Chinese characteristics in rule of law – for him the only possible way to avoid death is pleasing the top leaders.

Prosecutors aimed high but shot low. The indictment said accepting 64.6 million yuan in bribes was "gravely serious." But at the end prosecutors suggested leniency in consideration of Liu's confession, and made an argument for what sounded like a defense of Liu. Moreover, when Liu's lawyers stated he deserved credit for developing China's high-speed railways, the judge didn't say anything. Wasn't that Liu's job to develop the sector? A Hong Kong lawyer used a similar "credit for good work" strategy in May defending a cop who was being accused of accepting discounts from a hotpot restaurant in return for overlooking its illegal practices. The judge immediately said that the policeman was paid by the government to provide the service and his previous good work couldn't be considered as an excuse for leniency.

Those permitted to watch the trial were Liu's relatives and more than 50 members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a privileged group. Media were not permitted in the courtroom, having no choice but to rely on information provided by the official news agency and TV channels.

The debate was red-hot outside the courtroom. Will Liu receive the death penalty? From the level of cooperation he demonstrated on trial, his life should be spared this time. But then how will large bribery cases be dealt with in the future? Secondly, in the eyes of the legal community, there is an ethics issue. Can a Chinese-style show trial bring justice? The stance prosecutors took by the end of the trial was suspicious, and it's an open question as to whether judges had a clear grasp of the case.

Third, did prosecutors pursue the full extent of possible charges against Liu? Media stories pointed to a much higher amount of bribery money. More than 800 million yuan and 374 properties were confiscated. What was the source of these assets and money? If it didn't fall into the bribery category, weren't these assets still qualified for investigation as sources of unidentifiable income?

Too many questions surrounded the case, and a half-open trial can hardly answer them. To win public trust, the judicial arm needs transparency, not Hollywood.

The author is a lawyer of the Shanghai-based DeBund Law Offices

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