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China will expand nationwide this year a pilot project assigning criminal defense lawyers to represent defendants in criminal cases who don"t have lawyers to protect their human rights, a senior official from the Ministry of Justice said.

In October, the Supreme People"s Court and the Ministry of Justice jointly decided to conduct the pilot program for all criminal defense cases in eight provinces and municipalities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Henan and Guangdong.

"We will expand the program across the country this year, after summing up successful experiences from the pilot programs," Zhou Yuansheng, director of the Department of Directing Lawyers and Notarization at the Ministry of Justice, said in an exclusive interview.

Zhou said after the new measures are in place, there will be an estimated increase of 400,000 criminal defense cases each year.

Data provided by the ministry show that since October the courts in Hangzhou, Ningbo and Wenzhou, all in Zhejiang province, have accepted a total of 2,007 free legal aid cases, including 733 criminal defendants who were assigned lawyers providing free legal services, accounting for 36.52 percent.

"Providing a full criminal defense to accused people-a major incentive to promote judicial reform-has played an essential role in safeguarding the suspects" legitimate rights, and effectively avoids miscarriages of justice," Zhou said.

According to China"s Criminal Procedural Law, if the accused people are minors, disabled or have mental problems or if they may face execution or life imprisonment and they don"t hire a lawyer, courts will notify the legal aid centers under the justice departments to assign lawyers for them.

One typical example occurred in November, when a suspect surnamed Gong, was accused of rape, and was prosecuted in Xiangshan County People"s Court.

Gong could not afford to hire a lawyer and the court notified the Xiangshan County Legal Aid Center to send a lawyer to represent him. Zhuang Runwei from the Huaheng Law Firm was assigned to defend Gong.

During the trial, Zhuang"s defense statement claimed the facts of the case were unclear and the evidence was not solid.

The court finally adopted the lawyer"s defense statement and Gong was convicted of home invasion rather than rape.

Zhou said the pilot areas should improve support systems and adopt effective measures to protect legitimate rights of criminal defense lawyers, while standardizing their professional behavior.

Moreover, relevant authorities, including the courts, justice departments and lawyers" associations in pilot areas, will establish a coordinating and cooperative mechanism, under which they will regularly meet for information sharing, strengthen supervision of work flow, make detailed deployments and timely solve existing problems, he said.