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Wilson Wang was taken away by Chinese anti-corruption investigators on April 10, 2015. For 54 days he was interrogated and, he told his lawyers, tortured inside a powerful system called shuanggui.

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More than two years after he was dragged away by China's anti-corruption investigators, and nearly a year after he was sentenced to six years in prison, Wilson Wang has had his day in court.

Three days, in fact, long enough for the former tobacco executive to mount a surprisingly vigorous argument against the way he was treated and the validity of the evidence marshalled against him.

In a case marked by abuses and legal irregularities, it was a trial that offered a window into the growing ability for defendants to make their case before a judge after years of recent Chinese legal reforms – but also the severe limits on what those reforms have achieved.

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Read more: Shuanggui: The harsh, hidden side of China's war on graft, and how one man disappeared into it

Mr. Wang's lawyers came to the trial armed with hundreds of pages of legal documents bolstering their right to argue against coerced confessions and illegally obtained evidence.

"That's why the trial continued for three days, because Wilson and his two lawyers talked a lot, in order to try their best to protect our rights," said Jean Zou, Mr. Wang's wife. They introduced his diaries, argued that some pieces of evidence were forged and played video of a key witness calling into question parts of his own testimony.

The video had previously been banned from court, and Mr. Wang himself had been kept from talking about his time in the secretive Chinese Communist Party internal disciplinary system, which operates outside the law and employs harsh methods in corruption investigations.

This time, Mr. Wang described how interrogators went beyond forcing him to undergo lengthy periods of sleep deprivation and imposing other methods of psychological pressure. They also physically beat him on multiple occasions, he said, taking him into the bathroom or shutting off the power so it would not be documented by video cameras. At one point, they stripped him naked.

"That's the first time I have heard about that," said Ms. Zou, a Canadian citizen. She, too, faced intense questioning by interrogators and Mr. Wang's treatment, extensively reported by The Globe and Mail, has illuminated the abuses in the disciplinary system known in China as shuanggui, which holds people suspected of graft incommunicado for lengthy periods of time while they are pressed to confess wrongdoing. China has sought the return of numerous people living in Canada it calls corrupt fugitives as part of the same intense crackdown that swept up Mr. Wang in early 2015.

He spent 54 days being interrogated by China's graftbusters, who made him believe that his wife had also been arrested and that his daughter had been barred from leaving China, potentially devastating her ability to pursue a career in North America. At the end of it, he admitted to accepting bribes. When he discovered that his wife remained free and his daughter had left China, he recanted the confession, saying he had been tortured.

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Mr. Wang's first trial last year lasted only hours. He was found guilty. But that verdict was tossed out earlier this year, and a judge ordered a retrial – itself a rare step. Last year, Chinese courts ordered 1,376 retrials in 1.1 million criminal cases.

In the meantime, Ms. Zou and her lawyers have mounted a concerted campaign to win Mr. Wang's release, making numerous posts on Chinese social media, appealing to Canadian diplomats and the Prime Minister's office in Ottawa, and mounting noisy protests outside Chinese courts.

The new trial offered hope that their petitions had achieved a greater measure of fair legal treatment, which has been promised after years of legal reforms. Being able to question evidence "is actually one of the intended consequences of the 2012 Criminal Procedure revision," said Sida Liu, a scholar at the University of Toronto and the American Bar Association who has conducted extensive research on China's legal system.

Today in China, "sometimes you do see there is an elaborate cross-examination process. You do see arguments about coerced confession being cross-examined in the courtroom – which is certainly progress compared to before."

The Chinese government has said the number of coerced confessions have fallen dramatically, as efforts are made to "improve the guarantee of human rights in the legal system" in a way that allows the public to see "fairness and justice in each case."

In his research, however, Prof. Liu has found that while the new rules might allow individual pieces of evidence to be tossed, that rarely affects the outcome of a case.

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Last year, China's conviction rate remained above 99 per cent.

Those who have studied court records say legal reforms have accomplished little. Human Rights Watch searched Chinese legal databases for a four-month period in 2014, and found that detainees made torture claims in 432 of 158,000 verdicts. But judges convicted them all, even in the 23 cases where they agreed to exclude some confessions as coerced.

"Defendants are largely powerless against a much more powerful political judicial system controlled entirely by the party and by the government officials whom they accuse of torture," said Maya Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch. "The improvement in procedure seems to have had minuscule results in practice."

The Chinese government has nonetheless said it is committed to even greater change.

In April, the powerful Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms issued a document saying "we must strengthen prevention" of "tortured coercion for confessions and the obtaining of illegal evidence," and called for clarification of standards.

The goal is to have a "trial-centred" criminal-justice system, Hu Yunteng, chief judge of the Second Circuit Court of the Supreme People's Court, wrote in an opinion article for Intelligeast, an online legal website, last month.

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He called for investigators to do a better job of seeking evidence, and for courts to "pay great effort" in checking the legitimacy of confessions and evidence.

Chinese prosecutors, meanwhile, have engaged in their own debates about how to defeat allegations of torture – a conversation whose very existence suggests a rising need for a legal strategy in court.

It can be "dangerous" for prosecutors to broach the topic of confessions in court, since that can give rise to torture claims, acknowledged Lei Xiaoqiang, director of public prosecution of the Yiwu City Procuratorate in Zhejiang Province, in a blog post earlier this week. But prosecutors are best to fight back with questions, "and then carefully hear the defendant's response, and expose and refute unreasonable content," he wrote.

Still, the promise of reform has, so far, produced questionable yields. "You can look at it as a matter of improvement – or you can look at it as a matter of offering false hope," Ms. Wang said. "At any rate, people like Ms. Zou and her husband are stuck in this system, and they fight a battle against it, against overwhelming odds."

The couple's legal team raised 14 legal challenges regarding, among others, the openness of the trial, the judge presiding over it, the evidence presented and the validity of witness testimony. The court accepted none of them, nor did it allow for any witnesses to be brought to court and cross-examined.

One of Mr. Wang's lawyers, who has spoken with The Globe on several previous occasions, says he has now been warned against speaking with foreign media. Multiple calls to the trial judge and local procurators office went unanswered.

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It will be weeks before a judge renders a verdict. Ms. Zou is not optimistic.

"The trial is actually just a performance," she said in an interview. "They pretend they are fair, that's it."

Chinese-Canadian Jean Zou has been working to appeal her husband Wilson Wang's prison sentence in China after he was convicted of bribery charges. Zou says Wang was put into the shuanggui system of interrogation while in detention.
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