Rare Retrial Begins for Blind Chinese Legal Activist
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
BEIJING, Nov. 27 -- The retrial of a blind legal activist kicked off in eastern Shandong province Monday, but not without some of the same courtroom tumult that characterized his first trial, which was widely denounced by human rights advocates, lawyers said.
Chen Guangcheng, who embarrassed officials last year by exposing forced abortions and sterilizations, was convicted in August of disrupting traffic and damaging property during a village protest. A Chinese court earlier this month granted a retrial, citing a lack of evidence from the prosecution.
Chen's case, however, suffered another setback Monday, according to his attorneys, one of whom stormed out of the courtroom in protest. Three defense witnesses disappeared before the trial, the attorneys said, marking the second time Chen's allies were unable to speak on his behalf. On the eve of his first trial, the defense team was detained by police and accused of petty theft.
Despite the setbacks, Chen's attorneys said, there were moments during the nearly 10-hour proceedings Monday that gave them small reason to hope. Spectators, even though they were government employees, sometimes hissed at the prosecutors. And the simple chance to appeal was seen as a positive sign. Chinese courts usually find all criminal defendants guilty; acquittals and retrials are rare.
Chen last year highlighted abuses in family planning programs around Linyi, a city of 10 million people about 400 miles southeast of Beijing. Officials, whose promotions depended on not exceeding birth quotas, had forced thousands of men and women to have abortions and sterilizations, often conducting midnight raids and beating or holding residents hostage until they complied.
Chen, blinded by a childhood illness, taught himself law and helped many of the victims prepare an unprecedented class-action lawsuit. Since then, his supporters have been harassed, beaten and placed under house arrest. Chen was sentenced to more than four years in prison. His attorneys say the charges were trumped up by local authorities as payback for embarrassing them.
One of Chen's attorneys, Li Fangping, said the mood of the court Monday was markedly different from the last trial.
"In the morning, the prosecutor interrupted us all the time, and the judge was always on the prosecutor's side. I was expelled from the court because the judge kept granting the prosecution's objections but I kept talking," Li said. But Li said he returned to the courtroom and continued to identify discrepancies between the written and oral testimony of prosecution witnesses. "In the afternoon, the prosecutors tried to interrupt us about 20 to 30 times, but this time, the judge mostly denied their objections."
Chen, who wore a long green army coat and a two-inch beard, defended himself in court enthusiastically, complaining loudly about being illegally detained and persecuted by local officials, Li said. "This is the first time he was willing to talk. Last time he refused to speak because the procedure was so unfair," Li said. "He was in high spirits."
But Li Jinsong, the chief defense counsel, walked out of the courtroom at midday in protest after a disagreement with the judge about the three missing defense witnesses.
"Three major witnesses, neighbors Chen Guanghe, Chen Guangdong and Chen Gengjiang, all confessed to us before this retrial that their testimony in the first trial was false because they were tortured by police," Li said. "They promised us they would come to court to tell the truth. But two of them were missing this morning and one was kidnapped last night by eight unidentified men in front of our hotel. Two other lawyers witnessed it."
When Li tried to raise that issue with the judge and ask for an adjournment, the judge ruled that it was irrelevant. "So I quit the court to protest. I wanted to tell them, 'Don't try to play tricks with me. I will not let you tread on the law,' " Li said.
The Linyi Municipal Public Security Bureau referred calls about the alleged abduction to police in the neighborhood where the man disappeared, the Associated Press reported. A police officer in the neighborhood said he was unaware of any such incident.
Chen Guangcheng's eldest brother, Chen Guangfu, said he seemed to be the only spectator at the trial who supported the defendant.
"All the people who sat beside me were employees from the local prosecutor's office, the local police or the courthouse. There were also four village party secretaries from neighboring villages. I didn't tell them who I was," Chen Guangfu said. "But during the lunch break, I overheard a spectator, who said, 'Whenever the defendant says something crucial, the prosecutor interrupts, saying it's irrelevant. But actually I think this is the most crucial part of the case.' I can feel the mood of the court change in the afternoon."
Chen said his brother grew angry when interrupted by prosecutors. "He told them, 'You're shameless!' Even though he was insulting the prosecutors, it was joyous to hear."
A verdict is expected within a week, attorney Li Fangping said.
Researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.