The number of foreign offenders receiving legal aid has increased since a law was amended last year requiring the government to provide free help to foreign criminals who face life sentences or the death penalty.
According to the Ministry of Justice, legal aid authorities handled more than 800 cases involving foreign criminals last year after the law took effect in January 2013, a 20 percent increase from the year before.
“That more foreigners are staying in China and the amended Criminal Procedure Law has enlarged the scope of our legal services to foreign defendants has contributed to the sharp increase in such cases,” said Sang Ning, deputy director of the ministry’s legal aid center.
Most of the cases involved violent crimes, including drug smuggling and trafficking, murder, rape, human trafficking and robbery, as well as financial crimes, Sang said. Such cases mainly occurred in border areas, such as Yunnan province and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, and some developed coastal areas, including Zhejiang, Guangdong and Fujian provinces.
Offenders were mostly from Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and some European countries.
Under the amended law, authorities also provide free legal service to foreigners sentenced to life imprisonment, rather than only those who could receive the death sentence.
The number of foreigners staying in China for more than six months hit about 680,000, according to the ministry, including those who have obtained Chinese “green cards”.
Foreigners involved in civil cases can also receive free legal service if they are short of funds or their country has signed a judicial agreement with China.
The ministry said it has established a database of 20,000 qualified volunteer lawyers who can provide free legal aid to foreign clients. About one-third of them can communicate in English.
Sang said the ministry will emphasize having more free legal assistance in border areas such as Yunnan and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, where a large number of foreigners are involved in cross-border crimes, including drug smuggling and trafficking or human trafficking.
“The key is to increase government financial support to legal aid and take effective measures to improve the quality of service,” said Li Wei, a lawyer from the Beijing Lawyers Association.