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Laws, not favours, for political prisoners

By John Kamm and Joshua Rosenzweig
South China Morning Post, March 4, 2008

Hearing that journalist Ching Cheong had been released on parole and allowed to return to Hong Kong brought to mind the January 1997 release of Ming Pao journalist Xi Yang. He was also granted parole following an international campaign, and was allowed to return to Hong Kong after serving less than one-third of a 12-year sentence for trafficking in state secrets. Both releases were the result of political decisions made at the highest levels in Beijing, decisions that—despite being “in accordance with the law”—suggest more a willingness to bend the law than to operate under it.

We still don’t know all that went on behind the scenes ahead of Xi’s release. Preparations were under way for a visit by president Jiang Zemin to the United States in the summer of 1997, and Xi’s name headed a US list of eight cases of concern submitted to China. Many have speculated that Ching was released early in an effort to improve China’s human rights image ahead of the Olympics.

Parole is not an unconditional release; mainland law subjects those on parole to regular police supervision and places numerous restrictions on their rights. In fact, to the best of our knowledge, Xi and Ching are the only two political prisoners who have been allowed to leave mainland China during their parole period—with the apparent knowledge of the authorities that restrictions would not be enforced.

Virtually all the political prisoners released and sent to the US, for instance, have been granted medical parole, which requires neither court approval nor stringent police supervision. Under mainland law, those on parole who are deprived of their political rights as part of their original punishment (Ching’s rights have been suspended until 2011) are prohibited from publishing books, giving interviews, making speeches, or expressing any views damaging to China’s national reputation or interests. And regulations prohibit any journalist convicted of a felony from ever receiving the necessary accreditation to work.

By allowing Ching to return to Hong Kong, mainland officials essentially abandoned any pretence of enforcing their parole regulations: Ching has given a press conference, granted interviews, indicated plans to publish books begun during his stay in prison and expressed his desire to cover the Olympics.

Small victories such as the early releases of Xi and Ching are welcome, if opaque and arbitrary, gestures by Beijing. But will others benefit as well? Will Lu Jianhua, serving a 20-year sentence in Beijing in connection with Ching’s case, be blessed with the slightest gesture of clemency? And what of the perhaps more than 1,000 Hong Kong residents serving prison sentences on the mainland?

Justice demands that, as we rightly celebrate Ching’s release, we do not forget those who remain behind bars. The Hong Kong government should work as hard to help them as it did to help Ching.

South China Morning Post © Copyright 2008