At 9 a.m. on July 15, 2021, the trial of the Dawu case commenced at Gaobeidian Municipal Court in Hebei Province. To answer the wide range of concerns coming from the public, we providing the following briefing:
1. How long do you expect the Dawu trial to last?
Neither the trial notice that the court sent to the defense lawyers nor the trial announcement posted outside the court mention a starting date or ending date for the trial. Given that there are 348 volumes of case files and a vast amount of evidentiary materials, that there is fierce disagreement between the prosecutors and the defense team regarding the facts and the applicable laws; also given that Sun Dawu (孙大午) and multiple defendants firmly believe that they are innocent and demand the defense lawyers to make a “not guilty” defense, we expect that the Dawu trial will last at least 30 days or more based on progress during the first day of the hearing.
2. Is the Dawu trial open to the public? How many people attended the first day of trial?
Though the court claims that it’s an open trial, in reality public attendance was restricted. It was until the day before the trial when the family members of the defendants received notice from the court, informing them that, for each defendant, one family member will be allowed to attend the trial. Because Dawu Group is also a defendant, 10 employees will be allowed in. Dawu Group has about 9,000 employees, so only 1 out of 900 employees is allowed to attend the trial.
Even though altogether only 30 family members and employees are issued admission of attendance, they were still placed in other rooms where they could only watch the hearing via video streaming in the name of social distancing. Most of the family members said the image wasn’t clear and the audio was on and off intermittently.
Lawyers objected to the arrangement, requesting that the attendees be placed in the courtroom where the trial was held, but the court dismissed the request.
3. How are Sun Dawu and other defendants doing?
Sun Dawu and all other 20 some defendants are suffering from poor health, and several defense lawyers previously submitted motions for release on bail. During the pre-trial meetings, several defendants couldn’t take part throughout because of poor health. During the first day of trial, two defendants had to leave the court earlier to seek medical treatment.
July 15 is Sun Dawu’s birthday in the lunar calendar. He was in fair condition but questioned why there were no relatives or employees in the audience. He said, “All my family members had come, including our in-laws and other relatives, as well as employees, where are they? I want to know: Is this an open trial or not?” He expressed concerns about whether the case would get a fair trial.
4. Are Sun Dawu’s wife and two daughters-in-law co-defendants in this case?
No, they are dealt with as a separate case. Sun Dawu’s wife Liu Huiru and daughters-in-law Zhang Yuan and Ma Xiaochen were charged with “illegally absorbing deposits from the public”, and the case was returned by the Gaobeidian People’s Prosecutorate to Gaobeidian Public Security Bureau for supplementary investigation. That’s the only charge against these women, and their so-called “criminal offense” involves nothing but providing personal bank accounts to Dawu Group, which is not a crime at all. What the Gaobeidian Prosecutorate is doing is holding these women as de facto “hostages” as a way to dismiss the defense lawyers’ motion against bringing separate charges against them.
5. What did the first day of trial do, and how did it progress?
After announcing the opening of trial, the presiding judge informed [the defendants’] litigation rights, and also claimed that the issues of jurisdiction and recusal had been resolved during the pre-trial meetings. The judge merely asked the four defense lawyers who hadn’t taken part in the pre-trial meetings whether they had any calls for recusal. Lawyers Zhang Lei and Zhu Xiaoding requested that judges sitting on the collegial bench (合议庭法官) recuse themselves on the ground that the court has not made the court hearing truly public. They also requested that the prosecutors to recuse themselves on the ground that the latter got involved pre-maturely in the investigation of the case, and shall not assume the role of prosecutors according to Article 35 of “The Supreme Prosecutorate’s Rules for Criminal Litigation (最高人民检察院刑事诉讼规则). Later, more defense lawyers requested that the collegial bench recuse itself on the ground that, while handling the case, the bench blatantly committed procedural violations and had not ensured the defendants’ litigation rights. Defense lawyers took up the entire morning stating reasons why the collegial bench and the prosecutors should recuse themselves.
When the hearing resumed in the afternoon, the collegial bench dismissed the defense lawyers’ motions for recusal on the ground that reasons for these motions are not among those stipulated by Article 29 and Article 30 of the Criminal Procedural Law, and ruled that the defense shall not apply for review of this decision.
After a prosecutor read aloud the indictment, the presiding judge announced procedural decisions made during the pre-trial meetings, dismissing nearly all of the motions put to the court, including exclusion of illegal evidence and calling witnesses, appraisers, and investigators to testify, with the exception of ordering some new evidence per request of the defense lawyers.
With regard to decisions made during the pre-trial meetings that the court announced, the defense lawyers asked and got an opportunity to issue their opinions again. Several lawyers strongly rejected the court’s decision not to exclude illegal evidence. Their argument mainly focused on whether the interrogation transcripts produced during the period of residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL) under which Sun Dawu and six other defendants were held should be excluded as illegal evidence. Several defense lawyers argued for the exclusion based on the following reasons:
1). Through designating jurisdiction, Baoding municipal Public Security Bureau created a situation where the defendants had no fixed residences, and as a result, the Baoding PSB applied RSDL for people who have “no fixed residence” based on Article 75 of the Criminal Procedural Law. The PSB took advantage of the law with ill-intention, and nullified the human rights protection statute by designating jurisdiction. Several defense lawyers argued that the RSDL in this case is in essence illegal, used as such, it is illegal detention to limit defendants’ freedom of movement to obtain their confessions, and that transcripts of these confessions should be eliminated as illegal evidence.
2). The treatment the seven defendants received during RSDL is itself torture, and the entire RSDL constitutes physical mistreatment and in reality inflicted unbearable pain on several defendants. Sun Dawu vividly described RSDL as “worse than death,” a description the others would agree with. Evidence obtained while the accused are in a state “worse than death” should be removed. How can the court “have no questions” about such evidence?
Several defense lawyers strongly demanded that the court make an immediate inquiry regarding the elimination of illegal evidence, and through such investigative procedures eliminate from the court hearing the interrogation transcripts that were obtained through severe and inhumane torture during RSDL. In addition, several defense lawyers told the court that, during their meetings with clients, the latter told them that police investigators had deceived them. For example, they told Sun Dawu that the case involved only the Dawu Group, not Sun Dawu himself, and that they would be able to join Sun in his home for a drink during the Chinese New Year holidays. In Sun Meng’s case, the investigators told him that he would be released soon to resume management of the Group as long as he admitted guilt and accepted punishment.
The trial adjourned at 6:45 p.m. on the first day on July 15, and will resume 9 a.m. the next day.
6. What’s it like outside the courthouse?
Compared to the neighborhood blockage implemented during the pre-trial meetings, the surrounding streets on the first day of trial weren’t sealed off, but a large number of plainclothes police patrolled the street outside the courthouse. Journalists were escorted all the way outside Hebei Province. Sun Dawu was also interested in what was going on outside. He asked the court whether the media were allowed to attend the trial and conduct interviews. The court didn’t respond to Sun’s inquiry.
7. Has the defense team received ‘special attention’ from the authorities?
After receiving trial notification, all of the defense lawyers were asked by their local Justice Bureau for a talk. Three days prior to the trial, various Justice Bureaus, which oversee lawyers, sent officials to Gaobeidian to meet with the defense lawyers. Some local authorities even sent three-level Justice Bureau officials (the municipal district, the city, and the province) to attend the trial and watch the activities of lawyers under their respective jurisdiction. Their real intent is to apply pressure on the defense lawyers, while claiming that they are doing so to protect lawyers’ ability to defend.
8. What’s the current state of Dawu Group’s operation? Is it still under government takeover?
Currently, Dawu Group is still under government control and the business has seen a significant backslide. Government Work Groups have taken over the management of personnel, finance, and decision making at Dawu Group, and refused to pay legal fees for Dawu Group (a defendant), Sun Dawu, and other defendants. Most defendants’ assets were sealed, confiscated, or frozen; when their family members tried to borrow money from the Group for basic needs, their requests were rejected.
9. It is said that, prior to the trial, Justice Bureau officials tried to persuade defendants’ family members to dismiss lawyers they engaged from elsewhere. Is it true?
Some defendants’ family members told us that, prior to trial, there had indeed been Justice officials telling them that “if you stop engaging lawyers from elsewhere, your loved one can be released on bail”; they tried to persuade these family members to accept lawyers appointed by the court. Several defense lawyers made it clear during the first-day hearing that, if their clients can be released on bail, or if the court proposes suspended sentences for defendants who admit guilt and accept punishment, then the lawyers will voluntarily withdraw from the case immediately.
10. On July 12, 2021, Xushui District People’s Government issued a “Controlled and Detailed Plan for Leisure Townships of Xushui District.” Does it have any impact on this case?
The Plan identifies Dawu City as a leisure township combining residence, culture, education, commerce, and service. It preserves the existing Dawu Kindergarten, Dawu stadium, Sun Cultural Garden and other public service facilities, plans to preserve the Hot Spring Hotel and other commercial service facilities, and anticipates new development potentials. In a way, the fact that the Plan was issued means that the so-called “illegal use of agricultural land,” a charge brought by Gaobeidian People’s Prosecutorate, is actually legal, and that Xushui District government’s planned preservation and development of the hot spring project and the container water plant means that it retrospectively recognizes the legality of geothermal mining and mineral water extraction by Dawu Group.
But it’s hard to gauge the intent of this Plan issued after Dawu Group was taken over by the government and before the trial commenced. Those on the outside have no way to know at this point whether or how it will affect the government’s handling of this case.
To be continued tomorrow.
Dawu Legal Team
July 15, 2021