"If the Chinese lawyer hadn't actively defended me, I would have been executed, considering the amount of drugs seized and the serious harm it caused," said Theodoros Kourtidis after his 2014 conviction for transporting 2,775 grams of heroin in Yunnan province.
"I didn't expect the Chinese government would assign a lawyer to offer me free legal services and for the law enforcement authorities to pay attention to protecting my legal rights," said the 50-year-old from Australia last year from a detention house in the city of Lincang in Yunnan province.
Under Chinese law, a person arrested smuggling no less than 1 kilogram of heroin faces the death penalty. With the help and diligence of a Chinese lawyer, Kourtidis was convicted in July 2014, by the Lincang intermediate court and sentenced to life in prison.
Kourtidis' case dates back to last January, when he drove a rented car from Guangzhou, Guangdong province, to Lincang to purchase the shipment of heroin, according to the Yunnan Provincial Legal Aid Authority.
On his return trip to Guangzhou, Kourtidis was detained by police at a security checkpoint. Police discovered the heroin tied around his waist.
In March, the Lincang Legal Aid Department appointed lawyer Zhang Zhengyi to provide legal aid to Kourtidis.
"Because of the language barrier and differences in laws and legal procedures, I was desperate and helpless after being detained by the Chinese police," he said.
Zhang visited the local prosecutors' department and court several times to review the case files and hold meetings with prosecutors and judges involved with Kourtidis' case.
In July, the court "adopted some of the lawyer's defense opinions and gave me a sentence of life in prison, rather than the death penalty", he said. "I hope good behavior in prison will give me a chance to begin a new life with my only daughter and my elderly father in Australia."
Kourtidis was one of 800 foreign suspected criminals who received free legal aid in China last year after an amendment to the criminal procedural law took effect in January 2013. Last year's total is a 20-percent jump from the 2013 figure.
"The amended criminal procedure law has expanded the scope of our legal services to foreign defendants. There has also been a sharp rise in the number of these cases," said Sang Ning, deputy director of the legal aid center under the Ministry of Justice.
According to the amended criminal procedure law, free legal services to foreigners suspected of committing a crime will expand to those who are short on funds and can't afford a lawyer rather than only applying to suspects of major crimes.
Sang said most of the cases involved major crimes, such as drug smuggling and trafficking, human trafficking, robbery, murder, rape and financial crimes. The suspected crimes mainly occurred in China's border areas, such as Yunnan province and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, or in developed coastal regions, including Zhejiang, Guangdong and Fujian provinces.
He said many of the foreign suspects were from Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and European countries.
According to the Ministry of Public Security, the number of foreigners currently staying in China for more than six months has exceeded 680,000, including those who have obtained Chinese "green cards".
The Ministry of Justice said it has set up 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 focus on sending more volunteer lawyers to offer legal aid assistance in the nation's border areas such as Yunnan and Guangxi, where a large number of foreigners have been arrested committing cross-border crimes, including drug smuggling and trafficking or human trafficking. "The key is to increase government financial investment to legal aid and take effective measures to improve the quality of service," said Wang Zhengzhi, a lawyer from the Beijing Lawyers Association.