Sep 10, 2013 04:58 PM

Closer Look: Getting Barred from Public Trials

Over the past five years, I have applied for permission to observe court proceedings countless times. I have never been granted approval. 

A few days ago, a court in Shandong  liveblogged a major case. This led many to view the future of court transparency with optimism. I am not among them.

I believe one day, when courts return to their intended function under an independent judicial system, the practice of open trials can be applied. Otherwise, courts will continue to be instruments of politics.

On September 4, hearings for the trial of the former deputy chief of the old Ministry of Railways' transport bureau, Su Shunhu, were held at the Beijing No.2 Intermediate People's Court. I applied to observe the proceedings two days before the trial but was rejected.

Nevertheless, I was the first reporter to arrive at the court that day. In the court room, 20 seats were reserved for public observers, eight were saved for state-run media reporters.

To become a courtroom observer in Beijing, people are typically asked to provide information such as the presiding judge's name, case number and names of the parties involved. For cases of official corruption, courts often close the trial and tell the public that the seats for public observation are at full occupancy. In fact, each court is free to add seats for observers.

According to the law, any case that does not involve trade secrets, national security or personal privacy should be open. Any Chinese citizen with a national ID card should be able to attend court hearings. The reality is that many obstacles are placed upon granting the public access, all of which are illegal.

When my application to attend the proceedings of the Su Shunhu case was rejected, I had to reconsider my attempts to gain entrance. I applied to observe a normal civil case in the same court.

I sneaked into the courtroom where Su's trial was set to be held and sat in a corner, but a court official soon discovered me sitting there.

"How did you get in here?" asked the court official. I replied honestly, "I used another case's permit to enter the room."

He responded with a swift reprimand. "As a member of the media, how could you?"

I replied, "As a court of law, how could you close the proceedings of the trial?"

The official said, "We are a public trial. A Beijing television journalist is present." 

I wanted to ask him, in addition to official statements of the court, did he expect the Beijing television journalist to report on other aspects of the trial?

However, the clerk had stormed over and told me to leave. The clerk then shouted for the bailiff.

I said to the clerk, "The trial has not yet started, and I'm just sitting here. How have I disturbed the order of the court? 

Leaving reluctantly, I sat in a chair outside the room, feeling nervous and inexplicably afraid.

Almost all my visits to courtrooms have felt as helpless as this.

The incident reminded me of another similar experience a few months prior, when I attempted to attend the trial of Li Zeyuan, an airline financier charged with embezzlement. I sat in the hallway outside the courtroom and a woman spotted me. "It's her! The one wearing blue clothes is a reporter!" she shouted to other courtroom staff. Later, despite the fact that court officials did not take issue with me sitting there, she sat next to the door staring at me.

In the hallway waiting for Su's trial to begin, I once again took a spot near the door. Eventually, when the 60-year-old former official arrived at the courthouse in the afternoon, I reflexively took a photo of him with my camera phone.

Almost immediately, the bailiff began to yell and ordered me to delete the photo. A court official then chimed in and said, "Why did you attempt to document this in secret?"

"I did this in public. It's these court proceedings that are not open," I replied. As a result, I was forced to leave the court.

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