A former judge of the Supreme People’s Court, the highest court in China, is calling for the suspension or revocation of cases against some 80 people found guilty of violating “zero-COVID” policy regulations since the advent of omicron, a less deadly variant that began spreading in December 2021.
China implemented the zero-COVID policy in January 2020, the month after the virus was first detected in humans in Wuhan. Anyone convicted of obstructing the prevention and control of COVID-19 faced a prison sentence of three to seven years, according to regulations set forth by the National Health and Medical Commission of China on January 20, 2020.
Offenses included leaving home during lockdown
The offenses included violations such as leaving home during a lockdown without official authorization and concealing travel plans. Both made it difficult for authorities to trace contacts and contain the virus. Other offenses included avoiding quarantine, concealing close contact history and refusing to perform duties related to COVID containment.
Huang Yingsheng, the former judge, posted on December 10 on the Chinese blogging platform Baidu Baijiahao that because Beijing has relaxed its zero-COVID policy, it is no longer appropriate to prosecute, convict and punish people for violating containment regulations. He posted on the topic again on Monday.
In an interview published Tuesday in the Economic Observer Network, a weekly government-run newspaper, Huang emphasized that since COVID mutated into the less deadly omicron strain in November 2021, “cases where people have been criminally or administratively punished for spreading the virus should also be corrected.”
In cases that originated after the advent of omicron but that are still in progress, Huang said, the trial should be terminated, the accused acquitted, and the case withdrawn without further prosecution. For cases in which a sentence has been imposed, the verdict should be overturned and those who are imprisoned should be freed. And, like those whose sentence was a period of probation, their record should be cleared.
Wang Quanzhang, a Chinese human rights lawyer, said that the Law on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases fails to specify exactly what is illegal.
“The law is defined by specific law enforcement officers and judiciary,” Wang told VOA Mandarin. “The scope of attack is very large. Even if someone’s travel code has an error, or he fails to report his travel history truthfully, he may be arrested and charged for this crime.”
Cases still under investigation
Cai Fan, a retired associate professor of law at Wenzhou City University in Zhejiang, suggested that it would be difficult for authorities to adopt Huang’s recommendations, saying, “After three years of COVID prevention, some people have been detained and sentenced. If you delete all the cases of these people, then the country will have to pay compensation. How can that be possible?”
Zero-COVID criminal cases in Sichuan, Hunan and Shanxi provinces and elsewhere are still under investigation. At least three infected people in Hunan were being investigated for not reporting their infections to the community, not wearing masks when they entered and exited multiple public places, or for infecting other people, according to a local news network run by the government.
Wang, the human rights lawyer, believes it may be difficult to change the course of prosecution.
“Excessive reliance on the law makes it difficult to correct unjust, false and wrongly decided cases even if new situations arise,” he said. “But [the] mechanism is top-down. New regulations need to be issued and a systematic correction needs to be adopted. By then, some innocent people may have been locked up for a long time.”