PoliticsMay 3, 2016

The only serious question on a China extradition deal is how to say no


Opinion: John Key says he’s open to China’s request for an extradition treaty and has asked the Law Commission to investigate. But we’ve been monitoring the Chinese justice system for years already, and the moral answer couldn’t be clearer, writes Amnesty International’s Grant Bayldon.

In 2013 a woman named Liu Ping dared to challenge the corruption of government officials in China with a banner and a small gathering calling on party officials to declare their assets. This is something that any New Zealander would see as a normal way to exercise their freedom. But for her courage, Liu Ping was imprisoned, tortured and is now serving a six year sentence in the notorious Chinese prison system.

An isolated case? Sadly not. Liu Ping’s story is tragically common. But to make matters worse, President Xi Jinping is currently in the midst of a fresh crackdown on dissent, particularly of journalists and human rights lawyers. Over the last year many have been barred from working, harassed or even imprisoned simply for taking on sensitive cases.

John Key recently returned from his sixth official visit to Beijing

It’s no surprise that China has requested an extradition treaty with New Zealand – they’ve been putting similar pressure on many countries. But there’s an element to President Xi’s request that’s breathtaking in its hypocrisy, even for political deals. Because at the same time as China is apparently attempting to find and return the corrupt to face justice China-style, it is actively persecuting many people who seek to expose corruption at home – people like Liu Ping.

In saying he’s open to the idea, Prime Minister John Key has responded to human rights concerns by promising assurances that no one would face execution. But even if the New Zealand government could get death-penalty assurances that it could rely on, China’s enthusiasm for killing people convicted of any of dozens of crimes is just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s the real problem: extradition treaties require a high level of faith in the partner country’s justice system. Once signed, New Zealand courts are limited to looking at the evidence that a foreign country presents about an alleged crime. They have little ability to reject requests based on the underlying unfairness of the justice system the accused would face if returned.

The New Zealand justice system is based on a set of values that we hold dear. Things like being innocent until proven guilty, having access to legal representation, and having a fair trial. Sadly, none of these are respected in the Chinese justice system.

Of course people who are suspected of committing crimes should face justice. But if we were to send people to face the Chinese justice system, we simply could not have any confidence that they would be facing a fair and just system.

So what would the Chinese government need to change to give us that confidence? Asking this is a bit like the Monty Python question “What have the Romans ever done for us?” – you need to be ready for a long answer. So to condense what should be a hundred page report down to a few starters:

China needs to establish rule of law – which is to say that the Government must comply with the law just as the people must. It needs to completely overhaul its criminal code to remove the numerous “crimes” that should not be crimes at all, especially the ones that are used to lock up people simply for expressing beliefs that are at odds with the party. It needs to stop the widespread practice of extracting confessions by torture, or by threats against family members.

China needs to completely overhaul the judiciary and establish its independence from party influence. It needs to stop persecuting lawyers who take on sensitive cases, and ensure that everyone has access to legal representation. It needs to overhaul its trial processes which often result in sham trials in which there is never any possibility of being found not guilty. Within the prison system it needs to eradicate the prolonged torture, forced labour and denial of essential medical care are commonplace for those serving the often long sentences.

That would be a start.

But even with real political will – and let’s be honest, there isn’t any – it would take years to achieve. This is the reason that few developed countries have extradition agreements with China.

Prime Minister Key has said that a review by the Law Commission would underpin any treaty. But at Amnesty International we’ve been researching the Chinese justice system for years. There’s one thing we can say one thing for sure: there is no amount of work that the Law Commission or anyone else could do that would get past the fact that to send people – many of whom will be New Zealand citizens or permanent residents – to face the Chinese justice system, would be totally at odds with our values as a nation.

The only decent response to the Chinese government’s request for an extradition treaty with New Zealand would be to decline, politely point out what would need to change before we could consider this, and offer any support to do so. One of the marks of a mature relationship is being able to say no.

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