Upstaged by military activities and tensions in the Taiwan Strait, the National People's Congress on Sunday quietly approved major reforms in China's criminal justice system that would mark a significant human rights advance if put into practice.
The reforms, overwhelmingly approved during the closing session of the Congress, for the first time establish the presumption of innocence for criminal defendants, set a limit of 30 days in which police can hold suspects without formally charging them and give defendants the right to consult a lawyer.
According to Justice Minister Xiao Yang, lawyers will be able to meet with clients after police have conducted an initial interrogation of suspects.
The chairman of the Congress, Qiao Shi, hailed the reforms, which are slated to take effect Jan. 1, as a step toward the establishment of "rule of law and development of a socialist legal system."
In addition to the changes in the criminal procedure law, the Congress also approved changes in the administrative punishment law, which has been criticized by international human rights organizations. In some instances, the law allows administrative departments to jail suspects without trial.
Human rights activists claim the procedure has been used to jail political opponents in some jurisdictions.
In an analysis of the legal reforms, the official New China News Agency predicted that they "are expected to create some difficulties for law enforcement agencies used to old practices."
The news agency quoted a Beijing police deputy, Guo Benli, as saying: "Detention of suspects for investigation is abolished at a time when crimes are on the rise and we have difficulties in manpower and equipment. We will be under heavy pressure to combat crimes."