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A visitor at a Beijing internet conference in November.
China moves against cyber-dissident
Despite reforms, dissent remains a dangerous game
By Eric Baculinao
    BEIJING, Nov. 30 —  China is preparing to prosecute its first-ever case against a “cyber-dissident,” charging a software entrepreneur named Lin Hai with illegally distributing thousands of Chinese email addresses to foreign dissident groups.  

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Lin was arrested last March after Chinese authorities accused him of supplying “tens of thousands” of Chinese e-mail addresses to “hostile foreign organizations.”

       IN WHAT IS already a celebrated case among Chinese dissidents and groups advocating Internet freedom, China has alleged that Lin used cyberspace to “subvert” the Communist state power.
       Liu Jianping, a defense attorney for Lin, said his client is jailed in Shanghai on charges of “inciting the subversion of state power and the socialist system,” charges that typically lead to heavy jail terms and could mean life in prison.
       Lin was arrested last March after Chinese authorities accused him of supplying “tens of thousands” of Chinese e-mail addresses to “hostile foreign organizations.” Most of the organizations were U.S.-based Internet magazines run by Chinese dissidents. The first court hearing on Lin Hai’s case, originally scheduled on Nov. 26, was been postponed and a new date has not yet been set.
       The Lin Hai case is believed to be China’s first case involving dissent and the Internet and reflects the heightened fear within China’s security apparatus of the Internet revolution that is sweeping the country. While China only has about 1.5 million Internet subscribers — “wangchong” (net bugs) as they are called here — the community is swelling by about 150,000 a month. Authorities estimate there will be at least five million by 2000.
       This is an important target for overseas Chinese pro-democracy campaigners, who have been on the Net in strength since the early 1990s. While some groups are careful to avoid provoking Chinese authorities, others wield the digital medium like a weapon and clearly are viewed as a threat by China.
       Lin’s wife, Angela Xu, has said her husband is innocent. She called the charges against him “ridiculous,” noting that the dissemination of e-mail addresses, which are public information, is part of the business of Key Soft, the Internet-oriented company founded by Lin Hai. Key Soft could not have operated without the consent of China’s officials, whom Lin’s attorneys alleged knew of and essentially approved of the company’s activities.
       “Based on the law of evidence, the case against Lin Hai cannot be established,” adds Liu.
       “If Lin Hai is found guilty, then the government ministry which has the monopoly over telecommunications and thus acted as Lin Hai’s messenger should also be held guilty,” contends Liu.
Court hearings will be closed-door when they involve “sensitive state secrets” or “personal privacy.” Still, the open trial is regarded as a major step.

       The Lin case comes at a sensitive time for the Chinese judiciary, which is in the midst of a thorough modernization meant to subject it to a civil code. On Tuesday, for instance, China was to begin testing a new policy of open court trials in the Beijing district. The decision to open most cases in the capital to the public is a bold departure from Chinese practice. Though the reform is limited to Beijing municipality for now, it is viewed as the beginning of a step-by-step process to expose court proceedings across the country to greater public and press scrutiny.
       There will be some exceptions. Court hearings will be closed-door when they involve “sensitive state secrets” or “personal privacy.” Still, the open trial is regarded as a major step and a victory for Xiao Yang, the 60-year-old President of China’s Supreme People’s Court and the main force behind the reforms.
       “This very much bears the signature of Xiao Yang,” said Liu.
       Liu is confident he will win the case.
       Such larger trends give Liu cause for optimism. He notes the professional conduct of officials of the Shanghai Number One Intermediate Court handling the case. During the trial, Liu said he would take a page from one of his idols, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.
       “Offense is the best defense,” he said, paraphrasing Dershowitz.
       Certainly, even if the cyber-dissent case will still be heard in Shanghai’s closed courtrooms, Chinese justice today is a far cry from the situation 20 years ago. Then lawyers were banned or non-existent, judges invariably political and judicial proceedings were not much more than kangaroo courts.
       Today, while the system remains harsh and politicized, law schools are the favored route to a legal career. Private law firms are mushrooming in response to a suddenly litigious populace.
       Another major change is the elimination of the dreaded, all-encompassing category of “counter-revolutionary crimes,” a charge used in the past to eliminate political opposition. Threats to state security, as in the Lin Hai case, are now classified among crimes of “subversion,” reflecting China’s attempt to follow the legally precise norms of other countries.
       For Liu, the more important change involves the right of the accused to a legal defense — itself only in effect since Sept. 1, 1997. Except in certain extraordinary cases, defendants now have the right to access a lawyer within 24 hours of arrest.
       “The ability of the accused to contact his lawyer immensely improves the ability of the lawyer to protect his legal and human rights,” Liu said.
       For China’s critics, however, the entrenched power of the Communist Party remains an insurmountable obstacle to impartial justice. These critics contend that the arbitrary nature of China’s security apparatus, illustrated by the case of Lin Hai case and other political dissidents, can be traced directly to the ruling political party.
       China’s reforms could still be merely “cosmetic” as long as exceptions exist allowing secret trials to continued. But beginning Dec. 1, with open court trials in the capital, the world can more closely hear and watch the contending actors in China’s enigmatic legal drama.
NBC News producer Eric Baculinao is based in Beijing.

Internet Sites Human rights in China: Rhetoric and reality
Internet Sites Human Rights Watch China Report
Internet Sites Embassy of China, Washington, D.C.
Internet Sites China: State Department 1997 human rights report
Internet Sites Lawyers Committee for Human Rights: New approach to China
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