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He Spent 26 Years in a Chinese Prison. Then He Was Cleared of Murder

A Chinese court on Wednesday exonerated a man who had spent more than 26 years in prison for the murder of two boys, a striking sign of the deep flaws in China’s criminal justice system, and new, if halting, efforts at reform.

Zhang Yuhuan, 53, was arrested in 1993 after the police discovered the bodies of two boys who lived near him in the eastern province of Jiangxi. A court sentenced him to a suspended death sentence on the strength of two confessions and evidence that included scratches on his hands.

In a video interview, Mr. Zhang said police officers tortured him for at least six days after his arrest. He still has scars from bites after they turned dogs on him, he said.

On Wednesday, the high court in Jiangxi said the original conviction was based on incomplete evidence and contradictory confessions and it released him. Chinese television news showed his teary reunion with his elderly mother and ex-wife, who helped him appeal the conviction throughout his incarceration.

The exoneration grabbed the attention of Chinese social media and many newspapers featured it on the top of their websites, an indication that the story had not run afoul of the country’s strict propaganda rules. The Jiangxi court, which overturned the conviction, cited it as an example of efforts China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has spearheaded to undo false convictions and strengthen the legal system.

But critics point out such high-profile cases hint at deeper flaws in the system, such as its politicization and pressures on the police and courts to convict criminals in major cases. In recent years, Mr. Xi’s policies have strengthened the sway of the Chinese Communist Party over the police and also empowered domestic security forces, in part to carry out crackdowns on everything from online political speech to lawyers who defend dissidents.

A key government argument for the more assertive policing has been to keep the country safer. Critics, though, argue that China’s criminal courts rarely release suspects and have done little to penalize ferocious questioning tactics used by police officers.

In 2019 the conviction rate for Chinese courts stood at 99.9 percent. Government statistics showed the courts overturned 1,774 cases the same year, down slightly from 1,821 in 2018 — and a tiny fraction of the more than one million criminal convictions carried out by courts each year in China.

Mr. Zhang’s case was reminiscent of that of Nie Shubin, a man who was exonerated in 2016 of murdering a woman, 20 years after he was executed for the crime. Mr. Zhang was also initially sentenced to death, though the punishment was commuted to life imprisonment.

China does not release statistics on executions in the country, but human rights groups say it likely ranks among the highest in the world in total numbers.

Upon releasing Mr. Zhang, the Jiangxi court also issued an apology. He accepted it, but asked for more.

“My 27 years have been full of tears, pain and torture,” he said.

“It’s not a problem that could be solved by a line of apology,” he said. “My family is broken and I have nothing. So I ask the judiciary authorities to hold those who committed torture responsible of crime,” he added, referring to the police.

The court said he could apply for compensation for the wrongful conviction. His lawyer said he planned to push for about $1 million.

A man from Henan Province who was wrongly convicted of poisoning two children and was sentenced to life in prison in 2004 got $370,000 in compensation.

But Mr. Zhang’s request that the courts investigate the police could prove politically difficult, especially in an attention-grabbing case.

After Nie Shubin was exonerated years after his execution, his father, Nie Xuesheng, expressed gratitude.

“Thank you, President Xi Jinping,” Mr. Nie said on a Chinese news video. “Your ruling the country by law has brought me huge benefits. I give you a thumbs up.”

In an emotional video interview, Mr. Zhang said he was still adjusting to the transformations that had occurred in the world during his nearly three decades in prison. He was undaunted, if a bit dazzled.

“Now I don’t know how to use anything. Everything has changed. We didn’t have smartphones before,” he said. “I used to ride a bike at home. Now people ride motorbikes, and even have the luxury of driving cars.”

He said he was already learning to use a smartphone.

Lin Qiqing contributed research.


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