BEIJING Judge Number Two was asleep. The policeman at the back had his eyes closed. But no one was nodding off in the public gallery at the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court, where Zhou Juan's gaze was riveted on her handcuffed husband.
After nine months in custody, Zhao Xiangchun was finally getting his few minutes in court.
On a chair in the middle of the room, with the more wide-awake head judge staring down at him, Mr. Zhao did not look confident. As he answered questions from a plodding prosecutor who seemed barely old enough to drink, his wife gripped the rail in front of her.
Mr. Zhao was one of 11 alleged members of a car-theft ring. Not so long ago, the pilfering might have involved nothing more valuable than Flying Pigeon bicycles. In today's Beijing, it's cars, feeding on automobile fever in a city that registers 800 new vehicles every day.
Such a case, involving multiple charges and many defendants, would take weeks or months to decide in Canada. Here, it wrapped up in a day, an example of how China's legal system still lags far behind its economic and social progress. The Globe and Mail was allowed to sit in on the trial, getting a rare glimpse of Chinese-style justice in a case serious enough to carry a possible life sentence.
These defendants might as well have had "guilty" signs hung around their necks: A dozen police escorted the shackled and shorn prisoners into court, still wearing prison vests with large numbers on the back. They lowered their heads before the three-judge panel and admitted the charges against them. Each was then tried in turn.
The only evidence produced was read out by prosecutors, compiled from police work and the defendants' post-arrest confessions. The sole witnesses were the defendants themselves, questioned first by the stern head judge, then in more detail by the prosecutor, and finally -- very briefly -- by one or two of the seven defence lawyers. No corroborating evidence was put forward.
Their testimony depicted a gang that was far from Hollywood slick. They blamed one another and talked of botched attempts, falling asleep drunk in stolen cars and getting very little for their larceny. Cui Lin, for example, earned barely more than 10,000 yuan (about $1,500) for the 14 cars he helped to steal. "I spent all the money. I didn't buy anything very expensive with it."
The culprits were arrested after police nabbed one gang member trying to unload a stolen car. He implicated everyone else.
Mr. Zhao was defendant No. 10. The court got to him late in the day, and his appearance lasted all of nine minutes. He did manage to blurt out that he was involved in just one infraction, fronting a friend the money to buy a red Volkswagen Santana stolen by someone else. "I didn't know much about the law," he said. "Now, I know I was wrong."
At the end, the prosecutor read out his demand for life sentences as though reciting a traffic report. Defence lawyers read their clients' pleas for leniency from terse written statements. They offered no courtroom eloquence, no legal histrionics, no impassioned appeal to reason.
Mr. Zhao's lawyer, Zheng Bing, was as curt as anyone. "My client committed the crime out of ignorance, not to break the law intentionally," he told the court. "Please give him a comparatively light punishment within the range of the law, to fulfill the aim of educating, reforming and punishing."
Each defendant was given a chance to address the court. Several, including Mr. Zhao, declined. Others tried their best to tap into the judges' compassion. "I will give up evil, return to good, and start a new life," promised Liu Jincai, who said he was bullied into joining the gang. "Please punish me lightly."
Afterward, Ms. Zhou wept as she talked about her husband's misfortune. The couple married two years ago, and have an 18-month-old child. "I feel so terrible. My daughter cries every day, asking for her father," she said. "I can't work because I have to stay home with her. I must depend on my mother for money."
She broke down completely as she thanked Mr. Zheng, the lawyer, for speaking on her husband's behalf.
Later, Mr. Zheng said he did his best, but the legal system is stacked against defendants. Suspects are interrogated by police with no right to have a lawyer present, police sit in on subsequent lawyer-client interviews and prosecution witnesses are not required to show up for cross-examination. After seven years, Mr. Zheng is giving up and moving into commercial law.
Now, seven weeks later, the court has yet to issue its verdict. Mr. Zhao's family can only sit and wait, desperately hoping for a light sentence.
Whatever the decision, Mr. Zhao's father says the shame in their home village in Henan province will never be erased. "The whole village admires my family. My own father followed the Communist Party. Every year, some leaders come to visit us and pay their respects. . . . My son didn't intend to break the law, but what he did was not honourable.
"I can't believe it has happened. It is a tragedy."