In a recent court hearing in southwestern China, a public prosecutor indirectly stated that he could find no legal basis for the campaign of prohibition and persecution against the Chinese spiritual discipline Falun Gong—a highly unusual statement in the context of an officially-led movement to criminalize and brutally attack practitioners of the meditation school for nearly two decades.
On Dec. 23, Falun Gong practitioner Zhang Jun and his defense lawyer attended a court session at the Ba’nan District Court in the Chinese city of Chongqing, according to Minghui.org, a clearinghouse for firsthand information about Falun Gong in China. Zhang was arrested on May 24 for talking to others about the practice and its treatment in China.
After Zhang’s lawyer, an attorney from Chongqing, made a vigorous defense and questioned the case against his client, the public prosecutor said: “We don’t have any evidence that can prove that Falun Gong is a ‘heretical religion,’ and we haven’t found any laws or statutes that Falun Gong is a ‘heretical religion,'” using the official designation for the practice since October 1999, four months after the nationwide persecution against it began.
According to Minghui, the prosecutor’s statement was recorded in the court proceedings, which he signed off on as accurate at the end of the session. Minghui did not identify Zhang’s lawyer, likely in consideration of his safety.
The prosecutor’s statement is significant because it appears to be the first admission in an official forum that the 17-year-long campaign against Falun Gong practitioners has been illegal. The Chinese legal apparatus prosecutes practitioners under Article 300 of the Chinese criminal law: “Using a heretical religion to undermine the implementation of the law.”
Most of the measures against the practice, however, take place outside the judicial system, including loss of jobs, theft of property, abduction, forced “re-education” classes, extreme torture, and, researchers say, organ harvesting.
Chinese lawyers who represent practitioners in court say that Article 300 is too vague and even unconstitutional. For years they have made challenging its legality a core of their defense strategy.
In Falun Gong practitioner Zhang Jun’s case, for example, the prosecutor upheld computer memory cards and flash drives confiscated from Zhang’s home as incriminating evidence.
Zhang’s lawyer argued that digital storage devices cannot be used as evidence under Chinese law because their content can be easily altered. He also argued that Falun Gong materials “tell people to be benevolent, and clarify the facts” about the persecution to the benefit of society, and hence the “evidence” proves that Zhang is not guilty.
The public prosecutor’s admission that he cannot find any legal basis for identifying Falun Gong as a “heretical religion” means that he cannot now use Article 300 against Zhang, said Yiyang Xia, senior director of research and policy at the Human Rights Law Foundation, a legal practice in Washington, D.C. that has brought legal complaints against numerous Chinese officials for crimes against humanity.
“The prosecutor, in stating the facts, has proven that the persecution is not in line with the rule of law, but a political campaign, which Falun Gong practitioners have argued since the persecution began,” he added.
Xia said that the prosecutor likely made his statement in a personal capacity, meaning that it is not yet evidence of a shift in official policy.
Jiang Zemin, the former leader of the Chinese Communist Party, ordered the persecution of Falun Gong on July 20, 1999, citing a peaceful appeal by 10,000 practitioners in Beijing that April as evidence that the spiritual practice threatened the stability of Party rule. Before the persecution, between 70 to 100 million Chinese practiced Falun Gong in China, according to Communist Party and Falun Gong sources respectively.
Xie Weidong, a former Supreme People’s Court judge who now lives in Canada, believes that the prosecutor was acting from his conscience, but also out of self-preservation, given that the Xi Jinping administration has rolled out legal reforms that call for officials in the judiciary to be answerable for misjudging cases.
The campaign against Falun Gong has always been highly political, and if it were to one day be no longer in favor, officials risk being held accountable.
Xie notes that legal officials in China have begun citing “insufficient evidence” in Falun Gong cases, as a means of rejecting them. And because public security officials have no genuine legal basis to press charges, practitioners are eventually freed, Xie said.
This pattern was identified in a recent report by Minghui, noting several such instances in 2016.
Yu Wensheng, a Beijing-based human rights lawyer who has handled many Falun Gong cases, said that some Chinese legal officials now better understand Falun Gong and its legality in China after listening to the legal explanations and “not guilty” defense statements from Chinese rights lawyers for an extended period. Thus, some officials, often acting out of a sense of conscience, have made favorable rulings in Falun Gong cases, Yu said.
But the handful of positive cases doesn’t indicate that the Chinese communist regime has relaxed its suppression of Falun Gong, Yu said, citing several mass arrests in recent years. As recently as Dec. 7, police in the eastern city of Tianjin arrested nearly 20 practitioners.
“For as long as the Chinese Communist Party endures, there won’t be genuine freedom of belief,” Yu added.
Indeed, Falun Gong practitioner Zhang Jun’s ordeal isn’t over, despite the prosecutor’s unusual remarks.
The judge adjourned the Dec. 23 hearing, the second since Zhang’s arrest, without acquitting him. Zhang is being held in Ba’nan District Detention Center and awaits a decision that could either set him free or put him in jail.
The Chinese Supreme People's Court building in Beijing on Mar. 30, 2006. On Dec. 23, a public prosecutor in Chongqing indirectly stated that he could find no legal basis for the campaign of prohibition and persecution against Falun Gong, the traditional Chinese spiritual discipline. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)