A local court in Zhejiang province has issued China’s first-ever written witness protection order to keep a rape victim safe from harassment by the alleged perpetrator’s family members.
The 18-year-old plaintiff was raped by two men in a car in the eastern city of Wenzhou last September. She became acquainted with the men, both from neighboring Anhui province, on the internet, Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper reported Wednesday.
During the trial, the mother and girlfriend of one of the suspects repeatedly harassed the victim, according to the judge who presided over the case, which was held in Wenzhou’s Ouhai District. The women demanded the plaintiff retract her testimony — to say that she was not forced to have sex — under threat that they would spread news of the case around her hometown.
On June 12, the mother and girlfriend were summoned to court and served with a document “banning them from contacting the witness” for a period of six months.
“The ban is the most suitable solution in this instance, as rape cases rely strongly on witness testimonies,” the presiding judge, surnamed Pan, told Sixth Tone. “A written document to protect the witness has an air of formality and authority, compared with the oral warnings sometimes used in situations like these.” If the two women violate the terms of the order, they may be fined or detained by police.
The ban follows other measures that Wenzhou has implemented to increase witness attendance rates in court. Judicial data shows that between 1 and 10 percent of all witnesses in China actually show up for trial, with most opting to submit written testimony rather than face the possibility of intimidation or abuse.
Provisions for protecting witnesses have been in place for some time in China, though they’ve lacked clear guidelines for implementation. The 1996 version of China’s criminal law, for example, had such a provision, though its application was often situational. More detailed witness protection measures were added with the criminal law’s 2012 revision, providing for safeguarding a witness’ personal information, altering their voice and not showing their face in the courtroom, and preventing certain people from being in close proximity to them.
“Wenzhou’s witness protection order is an application of the new measures,” Wu Danhong, an associate professor at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, told Sixth Tone. Wu believes that in general, the outlook for witness protection in China is not promising. “Many witnesses don’t dare [to testify] or are afraid they will be attacked if they appear in court after receiving threats from suspects,” he said. “The public organs don’t have enough power to give full protection.”
“Most witnesses in criminal cases are not willing to come to court, unless they’re the key witness or the case gets a lot of media attention,” Ding Jinkun, a lawyer at DeBund Law Offices in Shanghai, told Sixth Tone. He, too, estimated the number of witnesses who physically come to court to be less than one out of ten.
As progressive institutions in testing and implementing judicial reforms, Wenzhou’s courts have seen significant growth in trial attendance rates. Witnesses, appraisers, and investigators who appeared in the city’s courts rose from 2 in 2014 to 179 in 2015 to 469 in 2016 — a previously unthinkable attendance rate of 73 percent.
Of the 40 witnesses in criminal cases this year in Ouhai District, 32 came to trial, said Judge Pan. A lot of this, he added, had to do with implementing measures to hide faces and distort voices, avoiding the possibility of vulnerable individuals being identified. “Witnesses are often less reluctant to testify when we show them the remote video room,” he said.
Contributions: Yao Silu; editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: A young woman holds a sheaf of papers outside a courthouse in Hefei, Anhui province, March 22, 2016. Ren Lanfeng/VCG)