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Rough Justice

China’s recent legal reform has identified and addressed dozens of wrongful convictions, but those behind these controversial cases remain at large

By NewsChina Updated Nov.1

When a court in Jiangxi Province declared on August 4 that 56-year-old Zhang Yuhuan was cleared of his wrongful conviction and was a free man, he had served more than 26 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. With 9,778 days behind bars, Zhang is believed to be China’s longest-serving wrongfully convicted inmate. 

In 1993, when he was 26, Zhang was arrested after police in Jinxian County of Nanchang, Jiangxi, discovered the bodies of two boys near his home. Based on two confessions and other evidence including scratches on his hands, Zhang was convicted of murdering the two boys and was given a suspended death sentence, although he said that police officers had tortured him to obtain his confession.  

In the following two decades, Zhang filed repeated appeals to higher courts. In August 2017, Jiangxi High People’s Court finally granted a retrial, which eventually found that the original conviction was made based on “incomplete and contradictory” evidence.  

Legal Reform
Zhang’s acquittal is the latest in a spate of high-profile exonerations announced by Chinese courts in the last few years. As part of a wide-ranging judicial reform launched in 2013, the Chinese government started reviewing some high-profile convictions.  

It is believed that the combination of disregard for the principle of assumption of innocence and the use of conviction rates as a performance benchmark for the police force, a practice abolished by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) in 2014, led to many wrongful convictions.  

According to a report on China’s judicial reform released by the SPC in February 2019, China’s court system exonerated 94 wrongfully convicted inmates involved in 46 major cases where most of the accused had been given lengthy jail terms since 2013. 

Part of judicial reform involved increasing the level of State compensation for victims of miscarriages of justice. Liu Zhonglin, 50, who prior to Zhang’s release held the record for the longest wrongful incarceration at 9,217 days before he was exonerated in 2018, received 4.6 million yuan (US$660,000) in compensation from Liaoyuan Intermediate People’s Court in Northeast China’s Jilin Province. The compensation included a record 1.9 million yuan (US$278,486) for mental harm. Liu, then 20, was convicted of murdering 18-year-old woman Zheng Dianrong in 1992. He was given a suspended death sentence, which was later converted to life in jail. He was exonerated due to lack of evidence.  

In announcing Zhang’s exoneration, a court representative apologized and informed him that he has the right to apply for State compensation. On September 2, Zhang applied for State compensation of 23.2 million yuan (US$2.6m), though experts believe that the final amount will be around 5 to 7 million yuan (US$720,000 to US$1m). 

Besides financial compensation, Zhang made clear that he wants the authorities to take action against those who allegedly tortured him into producing a forced confession. Zhang said he was tortured day and night for more than six consecutive days before he was forced to make a false confession. Zhang has identified eight police officers alleged to have participated in the torture. 

So far, local authorities have not responded to Zhang’s request to investigate the named police officers. Wang Fei, another lawyer representing Zhang, told NewsChina that he was rather pessimistic about the prospect of an investigation.  

“In similar cases in the past, local authorities are sluggish or indifferent to calls to launch investigations against involved officials,” said Wang, “In some cases, local authorities pledged to conduct further investigations, which would typically disappear into oblivion, and in other cases, local authorities ignored victims’ requests.” 

Few Follow-ups 
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].” 

Legal Issues
For many, the authorities’ apparent reluctance to launch investigations and press charges against those responsible for wrongful convictions go directly against their pledges. In a legal guideline released in 2013, the central leadership vowed that police, prosecutors and judges will be held accountable for life for cases under their direct jurisdiction.  

In February 2015, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, China’s top prosecutorial body, issued a five-year plan (2013-2017) to establish a systematic mechanism focused on “the prevention and correction of wrongful convictions” and on “holding those responsible” accountable. 

But some legal experts argue that these regulations should not apply to past cases. Moreover, there is the issue of the statute of limitations. According to China’s existing criminal code, the crime of extorting a confession by torture has a statute of limitation of five years, which means many cases have gone beyond that limit.  

But according to Luo Xiang, a professor of criminal law from the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, the criminal code also stipulates that if potential victims of a crime have leveled accusations against a suspect during the statutory period, the statute of limitations should not apply.  

Luo said that in most cases, those wrongfully convicted have made accusations against officials and law enforcers during their initial trials. “Based on China’s existing laws and legal procedures, there are no legal issues in pursuing cases involving extorting a confession by torture,” Luo told NewsChina.  

“The real issue is not legal or technical, but about whether the authorities have the political will,” Luo said.  

But according to Mao Lixin, a practicing lawyer and associate professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, who previously served in the police force, the issue is very complicated in practice. Mao said that many of the cases date back more than a decade when there were no video recordings of trials. As many of those wrongfully convicted only voiced their accusations against police officers during the trial, there are often no legal records of their complaints. 

“In making the decision to exonerate, in many cases the courts admitted that the police may have obtained a confession through torturing the suspect,” Mao said. “But it is often very difficult to obtain concrete evidence and establish a case to prosecute the accused officers.” 

Collective Sentencing
Another major issue regarding accountability is the “collective decision” mechanism adopted by law enforcement agencies, including the police, prosecutors and courts, especially in serious cases. As many of the wrongful convictions were controversial at their original trials, often because of inconsistent evidence, the final decisions regarding the suspects’ arrests and convictions were mostly collectively decided by law enforcement agencies, rather than by individual prosecutors and judges.  

This not only makes it hard to pinpoint specific officials to hold responsible for these cases, but there is a view that efforts to hold veteran officers and officials accountable could demoralize entire local law enforcement teams, which is an underlying factor behind local authorities’ reluctance to push for investigations and press charges.  

This appeared to be the case in Hubei Province in 2005, when a local police officer under investigation for torture committed suicide. Pan Yujun was a police officer involved in the investigation of the death of a local woman in 1994. When the woman’s headless body was identified as the missing wife of villager She Xianglin, he came under suspicion. The villager She was convicted of murdering his wife and received a 15-year jail term.  

But in 2005, in a dramatic turn of events, She’s wife emerged and returned to the village, which led to her husband’s exoneration after 11 years behind bars. Twenty-seven police officers and officials, including Pan who was 42 at the time, came under investigation.  

After Pan, who left a note declaring that he was innocent, committed suicide, the investigation was suspended and eventually called off. A local official involved in the investigation told NewsChina that the case had a major impact on the authorities’ determination to push forward similar investigations not just in Hubei Province, but throughout the country. “The Hubei authorities took the investigation really seriously,” the source told NewsChina, “but after Pan���s suicide, everything changed.” 

According to Mao Lixin, given the complexity of the issue, the priority should be identifying and correcting wrongful convictions, rather than seeking to punish those responsible. “If the decision to exonerate one case sends a chilling effect to the entire law enforcement unit, it could hinder the effort [of exonerating wrongfully convicted inmates].” 

Mao suggested that authorities establish a mechanism to pardon or give lesser punishment to officials if they help exonerate wrongful convictions, while punishing those who resist these efforts.  

But for Zhang and other victims of wrongful convictions, it is a matter of justice and equality, which should not be compromised. “As law enforcement agencies, they should be held accountable to a higher standard, not a lower one,” Wang Fei said.