Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Case of Feng Zhiming: A Question of Accountability

Li Sanren and Shang Aiyun, parents of Huugjilt, who was wrongly executed for rape and murder at age 18. Image credit: China Daily

On October 18, a court in Inner Mongolia sentenced the former deputy police chief of Hohhot, Feng Zhiming, to 18 years in prison. Feng’s conviction on charges of corruption, taking bribes, having large amounts of property that cannot be accounted for, and illegal possession of firearms and ammunition made national headlines, in part because of his connection to one of China’s most infamous cases of wrongful conviction and execution of an innocent person— the case of Huugjilt.

Huugjilt was executed in 1996 for the rape and murder of a woman whose body he had reported finding in a public toilet. The case against the 18-year-old Huugjilt moved swiftly through the criminal justice system, taking just over two months from the time of his arrest to his execution. Law-enforcement authorities considered it an open-and-shut case, based mainly on the strength of the defendant’s confession, allegedly made while he was in custody. The key players responsible for steering Huugjilt’s case through the system went on to receive promotions and commendations. But in 2005, a serial murderer confessed to the crime. When authorities reviewed the case they determined that Huugjilt had been wrongly convicted.

In the years that followed, judicial authorities were repeatedly ordered to reopen the case. But it was not until November 2014 that the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region High People’s Court held a new trial and posthumously exonerated Huugjilt of all charges.

Days after the court’s decision, it was announced that Feng Zhiming, the police official who had led the original criminal investigation in 1996, had been placed under arrest by the local procuratorate and was being investigated for dereliction of duty, coercing confessions through torture, and taking bribes.

To many Chinese, Huugjilt’s wrongful conviction and Feng Zhiming’s arrest were clearly connected. At the time of the arrest many hailed it as evidence of a new commitment to fighting wrongful convictions by demanding individual accountability from law-enforcement. However, Feng Zhiming’s conviction—despite the heavy prison sentence—left many disappointed when no mention was made of the Huugjilt case or Feng’s role in it. An online survey of more than 1,000 people conducted by the Beijing News found that nearly three quarters of respondents thought that Feng should have been held criminally responsible for his role in the Huugjilt case and 57 percent considered the verdict’s failure to mention the case “unreasonable.”

It took 18 years to finally exonerate Huugjilt of the crime for which he was wrongly executed, so there’s a certain symbolic balance in a prison sentence of 18 years for the man widely believed to have been responsible for the miscarriage of justice. However, absent an official statement from judicial authorities connecting Feng’s many criminal misdeeds with Huugjilt’s specific case, the question of accountability and positive change in the legal system remains.

Last February when authorities in Inner Mongolia announced the results of their investigation into 27 individuals being held in connection with Huugjilt’s wrongful conviction, Feng Zhiming was unique in that his case was being “handled separately” in the criminal justice system. But in the The Beijing Times of October 19, 2016, columnist Binglin observes that the earliest charges brought against Feng Zhiming dated from 2000—four years after Huugjilt’s execution—meaning that the question of his role in the case was never actually put before the court. Binglin asks:

Does Feng Zhiming’s responsibility for this miscarriage of justice fall within the scope of criminal liability? Even if his responsibility is limited to the realm of administrative sanction or party discipline, the fact that he’s been held criminally responsible for other acts shouldn’t mean abandoning the pursuit of a clear explanation of personal accountability and punishment for his role in the miscarriage of justice.

On the same day, in Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post, columnist Shen Bin points out that Feng Zhiming’s corruption has been documented “to two decimal points,” meaning that the investigation was conducted quite thoroughly. He asks: “Has the statute of limitations expired or has so much time passed since the Huugjilt case that it’s become too difficult to pin down the relevant evidence? I hope there will be an authoritative answer.”

Ultimately, these discussions highlight the importance of transparency and accountability. While the arrest and sentencing of Feng Zhiming provides some consolation, without the specific accountability that a judicial judgment could bring, justice has yet to run its full course. And without a reasonable explanation for why Feng’s role in the Huugjilt case has so far gone unpunished, many will conclude that there has been some sort of cover-up.