Privacy 'needed' for young offenders

Updated: 2013-08-05 01:03

By CAO YIN (China Daily)

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Legal experts are calling for better protection of the privacy of juveniles involved in criminal investigations.

Loopholes in judicial regulations, specifically those covering support agencies such as social welfare offices, puts the identities of young suspects and victims at risk of being exposed, legal experts warned.

Privacy 'needed' for young offenders

A boy surnamed Zhang, 17, is moved to tears when judges celebrate his birthday as he stands trial at a juvenile court in Zaozhuang, Shandong province. Legal experts called for greater protection of minors' privacy following a much-hyped criminal case involving the teenage son of a renowned singer. [Ji Zhe / For China Daily]

"There definitely needs to be more awareness among legal officials about how vital privacy protection actually is," said Ruan Chuansheng, a Shanghai criminal lawyer.

The call comes after authorities faced criticism for the handling of a controversial case in which a popular singer's adolescent son was accused of rape.

In February, the public security bureau in Beijing's Haidian district said five men had been detained on allegations of gang rape.

Police identified all five only by their surnames. But within hours Beijing media reported that police had confirmed one suspect was the son of People's Liberation Army singer Li Shuangjiang.

The case immediately became a hot topic in other media and on the Internet.

However, the youth, who was charged this month with rape, was confirmed to be just 17 years old, a minor in the eyes of the law.

Under the Chinese Minors Protection Law, police officers, prosecutors and judges are forbidden from revealing information on minors involved in criminal investigations, including name, address, photos or any other material that can reveal their identity.

"Every minor deserves privacy, no matter what family or background they come from," Ruan said. "Judicial officials should enhance awareness and protection during investigations, and more important, we need supporting articles (in law) to regulate related associations."

He also said non-legal authorities, such as the social workers who write up reports on juvenile suspects for court hearings or represent legal guardians, who must be present during all interrogations, are not bound by the same privacy rules, according to Criminal Procedure Law.

Gao Xiang, an officer of the Chao Yue Social Work Office specializing in conducting minor suspects' reports before prosecution, confirmed that youngsters' names can sometimes be carelessly exposed during their work.

"The more information we have about a suspect, including school performance and background, the more help we can provide for juveniles," he said. "But it's hard to balance finding that information and protecting a minor's privacy."

Now, the first lesson for volunteers is how important the privacy of minors is, he said.

"We don't arrange meetings with the parents of juvenile suspects at their home or at their child's school, so we can avoid neighbors, teachers and students knowing about the case," he added.

Although most experts agreed on the need to boost privacy protection, amending laws can take time.

Wang Ping, managing director of the Chinese Society for Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Research, urged authorities not to rush.

Pilot programs can be developed in major cities to help legislators iron out problems, he said.

Sealed records

China has already revamped the way police and courts handle juveniles.

As well as introducing adult representatives to prevent abuse in interrogation, the revised procedure law, which came into effect on Jan 1, also made it possible for young offenders to have their criminal records sealed.

A young man, who asked to be identified only as Ma, said he struggled to find work after he was released from prison in 2010.

"I got intern chances, but no companies wanted to hire me as they knew of my criminal past," he said, adding he was sentenced to one year in prison for robbery at the age of 16.

"During that time, I closed my room door and seldom talked with others," he said, adding he applied for the file to be sealed.

Now, Ma works for a Beijing-based security guard company and gets about 3,000 yuan ($485) a month.