Safeguarding foreigners' rights

Updated: 2014-10-23 07:39

By Zhang Yan(China Daily)

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Safeguarding foreigners' rights

A Myanmar worker (right) receives compensation from his Chinese employer for injury during construction work in Ruili, Yunnan province, thanks to the local legal aid department’s help.ZHANG YAN / CHINA DAILY

Sharp rise in demand

"In recent years, a large number of foreigners have come to China for travel, study or business, and it's inevitable that a number of criminal cases involving foreign parties will occur occasionally," Sang said.

According to the Ministry of Public Security, more than 60 million foreign nationals arrived and exited China in 2013. The number has doubled during the past decade. Meanwhile, the number of foreigners staying in the country for more than six months, including those who have obtained "green cards", is about 680,000, up from about 20,000 in 1980.

According to Sang, many foreign nationals that have entered the country illegally to work or visit are involved in criminal activities.

The problem is particularly acute in the coastal and border areas, such as the provinces of Guangdong and Yunnan, where some foreign nationals have been engaged in drug smuggling or human trafficking, which has contributed to a sharp increase in demand for legal aid services for people from overseas, he said.

According to Wang Jinlian, a senior officer at the ministry's legal aid center, most of the cases the center handles involve violent crimes, including drug smuggling and trafficking, murder, rape, human trafficking, and robbery.

"The offenders mostly come from Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and some European countries," she said.

According to the amended law, in addition to criminal offenses, foreign nationals involved in civil cases will now be eligible for free legal services if they lack funds or if their home country has signed a judicial agreement with China.

Offering free legal assistance to foreign offenders "reflects Chinese judicial impartiality and transparency", Hong Daode, a law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, said.

"In this way, foreigners will better understand Chinese laws and the relevant legal procedures, so they will consciously abide by Chinese laws and regulations when traveling or staying in the country," he said.

Major challenges

According to the Ministry of Justice, lawyers are faced with a number of challenges when providing free legal assistance to offenders from overseas.

"We face difficulties in communicating with the foreign recipients because of language barriers and cultural differences," said Zhang Kaiyou, an experienced lawyer from the Legal Aid Center of Dehong autonomous prefecture in Yunnan, who has defended more than 30 foreign nationals in the last nine years.

"Many foreigners don't trust Chinese laws, and are resistant to the lawyers at the beginning," he said, adding that some of the accused are concerned that the judicial officers will prosecute them unfairly.

In addition, China's legal system and judicial procedures are totally different from those overseas, and many foreign suspects hope lawyers will defend them on a plea of "not guilty" rather than plead for "lenient punishment", Li Fang, a lawyer with the Beijing Yingke Law Firm, said.

Therefore, if Chinese lawyers want to offer better legal services to foreign clients, the key is to "improve language skills, gain more practical experience, and be more patient", Zhang said.

According to Wang, the ministry's legal aid center has established a database of 20,000 qualified volunteer lawyers who can provide free legal service for foreign clients, and about one-third of them can communicate with their clients in English.

For non-English-speaking clients, legal aid centers in many large cities, such as Guangzhou, Shanghai and Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, have signed agreements with local translation companies, and the costs are covered by the local governments, she said.

"This is an effective way of communicating with foreign suspects, and a timely way to inform them about their rights and other points of interest," she added.

Using new media platforms

According to Sang, in addition to improving the talent pool of lawyers, the ministry will make a priority of deploying a larger number of legal personnel to China's border areas to provide free legal aid. Many will be employed in areas such as Yunnan and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, where a large number of foreign nationals are involved in cross-border crimes, including drug smuggling and trafficking, or human trafficking.

Moreover, the ministry will use new media platforms to release information about legal aid services and typical cases, and publicize the contact details of qualified lawyers.

"It's essential for the government to increase financial support for legal aid, and to take effective measures to improve the quality of services," Li Wei, a lawyer from the Beijing Lawyers' Association, said.

She suggested that local legal aid departments should "set up a supervision mechanism to follow case developments and assess the quality of the services provided by lawyers. That will enable us to provide the best services possible".

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