Because of the duties of his job as a human rights lawyer in China, Teng Biao was forced to endure more than five years of harassment and eventually torture at the hands of his home government.
After being put under house arrest in 2003, Biao was disbarred, deprived of his passport, banned from the media, forbidden from teaching, assaulted, kidnapped, forced to disappear, raided by officers and in 2011, subjected to torture.
Now, living in exile in the United States with his wife and two daughters, Biao continues his work against China’s death penalty and China’s detainment of human rights lawyers.
Using his first-hand experience with the criminal justice system, Biao discussed the implications of the death penalty in China, which he said is often used in wrongful convictions, at a lecture at Cornell Law School on Thursday.
Biao also described the detainment and arrests of many other human rights lawyers like himself who try to help those wrongfully convicted individuals when they are sentenced to the death penalty.
The biggest difference between the Chinese death penalty system and the American death penalty system is that prosecutors and judges will knowingly sentence innocent defendants to death, he said.
While the exact figures are unknown, China leads the world in the number of death penalty executions annually.
Biao said the system of wrongful conviction in China operates according to a pattern. Once a crime is committed, pressure is put on the police to find the perpetrator. With the incentive of being awarded and promoted, police officers who cannot find the actual criminal in a short period of time will often arrest a scapegoat in order to publicize that the case has been solved.
Through torture, officials are able to get a confession from these defendants, despite the fact that they are innocent. In court, these defendants are often sentenced to execution within seven days.
Lucky defendants find human rights lawyers who may be able to fight for their release. However, Biao said only 0.1 percent of wrongfully convicted individuals have had the opportunity to be released.
These problems within China’s criminal justice system stem from what Biao said was “a lack of judicial independence.”
Biao said the head of the China’s Public Security Bureau “has more power than the head of the court and the head of the prosecutor.” As a result, the head of the PSB can give orders to the head of the court and judge.
Additionally, the Communist party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission — a commission which supervises and controls state legal institutions, including the court system — is comprised of the head of the police, the prosecutor and the court. While their primary responsibility is to focus on ideological matters, they can exert influence over case outcomes. Together, their collaboration is “much more powerful than the defendant and the lawyer in criminal procedure law,” Biao said.
However, despite his research and his personal experiences, Biao is positive about both his continued human rights efforts even from the U.S., and China’s future as a whole.
“I cannot go back to China but I continue my human rights work,” Biao said. “And I believe human rights and freedom will prevail in China because it is related to human dignity and Chinese people in the future will enjoy freedom and democracy.”