Although there have been several dozen similar exonerations in the past, few are followed by an investigation into those responsible.
The most severe punishment meted out to those found responsible for using torture to obtain a confession came in the case of Hugjiltu. An 18-year-old man from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Hugjiltu was convicted of the rape and murder of a woman in 1996. He was executed just 62 days later amid an ongoing crime crackdown. Almost a decade after his execution, a serial rapist confessed to the crime in 2005.
In 2014, Hugjiltu was formally exonerated. After widespread public anger, authorities launched an investigation into the law enforcement personnel that handled the case. The case remains the most referenced among similar miscarriages of justice.
In 2016, authorities announced that 27 officials had been penalized. Feng Zhiming, a former deputy police bureau chief, was sentenced to 18 years in jail for crimes including dereliction of duty, extorting confessions by torture, taking bribes and possessing assets of unknown origin of about 35 million yuan (US$5m). But to the disappointment of activists and Hugjiltu’s relatives, the other 26 escaped criminal charges. Instead, they were given “administrative penalties, including admonitions and a record of demerit,” according to authorities.
In May this year, authorities in Xuchang City in Henan Province announced that Zhu Jianying, a deputy-director of the city’s intermediate people’s court, had surrendered to law enforcement authorities for irregularities and illegal actions. Zhu was the presiding judge in the well-publicized case of Cao Hongbin. Cao spent 15 years behind bars for the crime of intentional injury against his wife, who Cao maintained he had found injured when he returned home late one evening in April 2002. Although he was released from jail in 2017, having not been given any sentence reductions as he refused to plead guilty, he continued his appeal. Cao was finally acquitted in May 2019 by a Henan court, which cleared his name for insufficient evidence.
While Cao believes that Zhu’s fall is connected to his persistence in urging local authorities to investigate those responsible for his wrongful conviction, Zhu could have come under investigation for unrelated reasons. Xuchang authorities made no direct link between the two incidents.
Obtaining a confession through torture was also a factor in the wrongful conviction of Liao Haijun. Liao received a life sentence in 2003 for the murder in 1999 of two 9-year-old girls who were found in a well in Xinjin Village of Tangshan, Hebei Province. As he was 17 at the time of the murder, Liao’s parents were also questioned and found guilty of harboring a criminal. Each served five years in jail. Both parents died before their son was officially acquitted in 2018. He had been released in 2010 after the SPC ordered a review of his case the previous year.
Liao received 3.4 million yuan (US$493,000) in compensation. Since then, Liao has been actively seeking to hold those responsible for his wrongful conviction accountable. In a complaint filed to local authorities, Liao identified 11 police officers, officials and judges that he claimed are responsible. In July 2019, his persistence paid off, as a former police officer who led the investigation into the murder casewas charged for torturing Liao.
But since then, legal proceedings against the former police officer seem to have been conducted behind closed doors. Wang Fei, Liao’s lawyer, told NewsChina that local authorities have refused to release information about the trial of the officer. “What I heard is that Wang Baoxiang [the police officer] was already convicted and only received a suspended sentence,” said Wang, “This is ridiculous as Wang’s crime is punishable by up to 10 years [in jail].”