China tries top leaders of '89 democracy movement

January 20, 1991|By Sheryl WuDunn | Sheryl WuDunn,New York Times News Service

BEIJING -- They are only tiny trial notices, scribbled on pieces of paper that crackle in the wind on a board outside the Intermediate People's Court, but they suggest that China now hopes to write the last chapter in the chronicles of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement.

While the world is absorbed by the crisis in the Persian Gulf, China is putting on trial the boldest and most prominent students and intellectuals who were the backbone of the democracy movement.

Nine people have been sentenced so far, drawing punishment ranging from suspended sentences to up to four years in prison, and 14 more are now on trial or awaiting sentences.

Perhaps a dozen other democracy leaders are to be tried over the next month so that the Communist Party can put the Tiananmen episode behind it and move on to other challenges.

China's legal system is enveloped in darkness, and little is known about how political trials are conducted or what kind of evidence is brought against the defendants.

Piles of court documents, including influential opinions and memos from senior leaders that go into dossiers on the dissident, are sometimes considered confidential so that even the defendant's counsel is not allowed to see them, a Chinese criminal lawyer said.

"The cards are so stacked against any human being that it's hard to say it's a fair trial in the terms we understand it," said Jerome A. Cohen, a professor of Chinese law at New York University. "The function of the courts is to give the impression that they are scrupulously following the details of the law."

Underlying the entire process is the concept of "leniency to those who confess, severity to those who resist." Defendants are assumed to be guilty, and those who profess their innocence are likely to get much longer sentences and to serve their full prison terms instead of being released on parole after serving half the sentence.

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