In 2004 the National People’s Congress (NPC) amended the constitution so that for the first time the protection of the individual was incorporated as a constitutional requirement. Specifically, Articles 37 and 38 recognize the “freedom of the person” and the “personal dignity of citizens” as “inviolable.” Although the 1997 Criminal Procedure Law allows the police to detain a person for up to 37 days before release or formal arrest, more vigorous court reviews have led to the release of thousands of unlawfully detained individuals. However, although the law stipulates that the authorities must notify a detainee’s family or work unit of the detention within 24 hours, in practice timely notification is often disregarded, especially in sensitive political cases.
Police sometimes hold individuals without granting access to family members or lawyers, and their trials are sometimes conducted in secret. Detained criminal suspects, defendants, their legal representatives, and close relatives are entitled to apply for bail, but, in practice, few suspects are released pending trial. The reeducationthrough- labor system allows nonjudicial panels of police and local civil authorities to sentence individuals to up to three years in prison-like facilities. It has been reported that some detainees, usually political activists or dissidents, have been incarcerated in high-security psychiatric facilities for the criminally insane. Police and prosecutorial officials have been accused of ignoring due process provisions of the law and constitution.
Citizens have a constitutional guarantee of the right to use their own spoken and written language in court proceedings. Courts and procuratorates are advised by the constitution that they “should provide translations for any party to the court proceedings who is not familiar with the spoken or written languages in common use in the locality.” The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the courts are subjected to party and government policy guidance that influences the outcome of verdicts and sentences.
Conviction rates in criminal cases in the early 2000s were approximately 90 percent, and trials generally were little more than sentencing hearings. Although most suspects in criminal cases are legally guaranteed the right to counsel, they often meet their appointed attorney only once before the hearing; at best, a defense attorney can obtain a reduction of the sentence. In many politically sensitive trials, rarely lasting more than several hours, the courts hand down guilty verdicts immediately following proceedings, and death sentences are often implemented within days of the rejection of an appeal.