China security boss urges judicial independence, transparency in trials

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's domestic security chief on Monday called for a more independent judiciary and greater transparency in trials through the use of audio and video recordings as well as steps to curb interference by government officials.

Meng Jianzhu's comments in the official People's Daily come after China unveiled a landmark package of social and economic reforms that included the abolition of controversial forced labour camps and a call to free courts from political influence.

"We must strive to push forward openness in trials," Mr Meng said in the lengthy article, joining his voice to demands from China's supreme court last month for a halt to corruption and official interference in decisions.

"Aside from what is deemed unsuitable for openness by the law, all other trials should be open." Quoting former US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis's remark that "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants," Mr Meng called for audio and video recordings of trials and for court documents to be made accessible to the public.

Critics condemned the lack of openness of the trial of Bo Xilai, a one time high-flying politician at the center of the biggest political scandal in recent memory. Authorities kept journalists out of the courthouse and published only snippets of court proceedings on a microblog. "Judicial reform is an important part of political reform, with strong political, policy and legal ramifications," Mr Meng said in the article.

But critics say judicial independence in China is rarely given more than lip service, as justices answer to Communist Party authorities and trials often hinge on political considerations.

Mr Meng urged the central government to tighten oversight of judicial staff to weed out "local protectionism," a reference to the influence municipal officials wield over verdicts.

The central government will overcome local obstacles to reform, including securing a more independent system of courts, a top Communist Party scholar said last week.

But Meng also wanted tougher sentences for criminals, saying, "Some criminals serve sentences that are too short, and the rate of release for parole and medical treatment is too high."