I studied law. I taught law. I acted as a lawyer. Still with that legal background, I find it difficult to wrap my mind around systems where people are “above the law.” In practical terms that means if they commit an offense, they are not processed through the legal justice system. They receive a free pass. This is the real world. Not one you find in law textbooks except in footnotes.
In Thailand, there are multiple examples of someone with political and social influence getting away with murder. There were witnesses. The act was caught on CCTV cameras. But the evidence is lost along the way. Nothing comes of the case. After a few months, it disappears from the newspapers, from the public mind, lost from collective memory. Time erases the crime. In the real world, our memories can only have so much overload before they no longer function.
The victim’s family in such cases is lost in the void. There is no public accountability, no explanation, no reconciliation of the rules of the system. In the real world, none of that matters a great deal. Power accumulates. Power is the gravity that shapes, bends the rules to fit the interest of the powerful.
A few days ago in Cambodia an environmentalist was shot dead as he sought to lead a couple of reporters into a forest where illegal logging was apparently going on. He was shot dead by a soldier guarding against troublemakers like Chut Wutty, who led a Natural Resources Protection Group. He sought truth and justice. In the real world, people on the side of truth and justice get into conflicts with powerful people. Push becomes a shove, and a shove moves to the next stage of a gun. “Above the law” means the death of this kind is unlikely to lead to arrest of the gun. Who it turns out was a soldier who was said later to have shot himself (twice) in the chest with his own AK47.
Chut Wutty is an example of someone who confronted powerful interest. In this part of the world, that confrontation is more likely than not going to end badly and when the gun smoke clears, there will be a body of the man seeking truth and justice. In the real world, there will be an “investigation” and no evidence will be found linking anyone powerful to the crime. There will be no trial. Only a dead gunman who killed himself.
China is in the spotlight for the impunity of Bo Xilai, ex-political heavy weight, who by press accounts waged a reign of terror against “enemies” in his city of Chongqing, which has a population of 30 million people. Bo Xilai’s wife is charged with murdering by poison British national Michael Heywood. She showed up shortly afterwards dressed in a Chinese Army general’s uniform.
In the real world, the most powerful people in Asia have political power. This is the get-out-of-jail-free card for them, their family, friends and associates. But what Bo Xilai’s downfall—a huge political event in China—illustrates is that a man may be powerful but there may be more powerful men above him. It appears that Bo Xilai wired taped the phone of President Hu Jintao who was in Chongqing. No doubt he only wanted to know what good things the president was saying about him. Unlike American banks, Bo Xilai wasn’t too big to fail. The Communist Party pulled the plug and Bo Xilai, a feared, ever powerful force who ruled with an iron-fist, is now on the sidelines. In the real world, the powerful fall only when they double cross someone more powerful than they are.
This year the Chinese government will spend around $110 billion on domestic security—the surveillance and information technology system don’t come cheap. Regional leaders like Bo Xilai had access to such systems. That allowed him and other powerful regional leaders to keep watch on the Chinese counterparts to Chut Wutty. In the real world, people who seek to remedy injustice need to be watched. And as we can see in the case of China, some significant cash is put into high systems to scan the citizens for such troublemakers.
When a forty-year-old blind Chinese lawyer named Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest, he found a way into the American Embassy in Beijing. His fate is still unresolved. One thing is clear. The impunity game once it is thrust into the international spotlight, the authorities scramble for cover, citing the usual reason: it is a matter of internal interest and outsiders shouldn’t poke their nose in domestic affairs. The powerful don’t like other powerful people looking down at them. That causes loss of face.
Chen’s “crime” was making noises about forced abortions and the like and the powerful wanted to turn down the volume by putting him and his family under house arrest—after having already served over four years in jail for “damaging property and organising a mob to disturb traffic.” His other crimes included: organizing a petition to eliminate taxes on disable farmers, signatures on a petition to close down a polluting paper factory, and a successful law suit to force Beijing’s subway operator to allow the blind to use the subway for free.
Clearly Chen was a world class troublemaker for the powerful. They did what powerful people who are above the law do, they take the person out of circulation. No more official charges for him? No problem, just put him and his family under house arrest. Have a squad of armed men circle the houseand beat upthe man, his wife and kid because in the real world, you can.
Chen complained of mistreatment at the hands of authorities, and that included abuse of his wife and six-year-old daughter.
What has Chen asked? Basically he’s asked the government officials not to be above the law. The Toronto Star quotes Chen, “I also ask that the Chinese government safeguard the dignity of law and the interests of the people, as well as guarantee the safety of my family members.”
The breaking news is Chen checked out of the American Embassy in Beijing and into a hospital—out of his own volition or so the American officials say. The American Embassy is gaining the reputation of a half-way house from embattled police chiefs to blind activist lawyers. They get shelter, food, some counseling before being sent back to the street. The Americans apparently received the assurance from Chinese authorities that Chen would be treated like “an ordinary citizen.” That shouldn’t be a hard promise to keep because that was exactly how he was treated. Ordinary citizens are below the law; those in power above the law, and they get to find a middle ground in the foyer of the American Embassy. You just know that ain’t going to work the way they think it will.
Here’s the executive summary. Chut Wutty is dead in Cambodia. Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng who was hiding out in the American Embassy in Beijing, has decamped to a hospital where he will be treated as an ordinary citizen. And strict criminal libel lawyers in Thailand prevent naming the powerful killers who walk the streets of major cities in Thailand. That’s another thing worth mentioning. Speech in the above-the-law jurisdiction is inevitably censored to make certain ordinary citizens don’t start asking awkward questions about truth and justice.
Because in the real world, those above the law, remain above the law, and those who seek truth and justice will wind up in an early grave, house arrest, or the Chinese transitional guest room in the American Embassy with a map of China and suggestions of where they might next want to live.
If you live in a country where the rule of law applies to the powerful, then you should light a little candle tonight and, despite all of the misfortunes of class, race and inequality, count yourself lucky that as an ordinary citizen you can raise your voice and ask for justice. You can go public with your grievances, proposals for change, no matter that others disagree with you, and you can go home, turn on the TV and not worry that the government won’t send men around to beat up your wife and kid. Or put a bullet through your head.
Because if you lived in the real world that most people occupy, you’d understand just how dangerous truth and justice can be and the costs fall like a ton of bricks on the person making such a noise.
Christopher G. Moore’s latest novel is The Wisdom of Beer.