On January 16, a group of lawyers filed a criminal complaint with prosecutors in Jiangxi Province against law-enforcement and judicial personnel responsible for one of China’s most infamous cases of wrongful conviction. There is yet no word on whether prosecutors will act on the complaint.
Late last year in the city of Leping, four men were acquitted of murder and rape, charges dating back to a sensational case from May 2000 involving the murder and dismemberment of a man and a woman. Local police came under serious pressure to solve the case after it went unsolved for two years, leading them to arrest Huang Zhiqiang, Fang Chunping, Cheng Fagen, and Cheng Lihe in 2002. These men have spent most of the last decade and a half behind bars, many of those years awaiting execution.
The former defendants in what became known as the “Leping 5.24 murder case” were convicted of murder, rape, and robbery and sentenced to death by the Jingdezhen Intermediate People’s Court. That verdict was overturned on appeal, and the case was sent back for retrial after the defendants alleged that their confessions had been obtained through torture. Despite the continued insistence that torture had taken place and inconsistencies in the defendants’ testimonies, death sentences were handed down again in 2004, only to be suspended by a two-year reprieve on appeal.
In 2011, the allegations of torture gained more credibility after a suspect in another criminal case confessed to having committed the crimes for which the four men had been convicted. Despite this confession, it still took officials another four years to reopen the case, and even then the defendants’ lawyers were prevented from accessing necessary case files. Meanwhile, lawyers and family members held a weeklong demonstration outside the provincial court as well as nightly candlelight vigils.
The lawyers’ protest took place amidst an ongoing crackdown of rights lawyers in China, who employ pressure tactics such as mobilizing public opinion to seek justice. In fact, an activist named Wu Gan—known more commonly by his online name, “Super Vulgar Butcher”—was detained in connection with the courthouse protest and now awaits trial on charges of subversion in Tianjin.
Neither the lawyers’ protest nor the charges facing Wu Gan feature in a recent opinion piece in The Beijing News, in which lawyer Ruan Ziwen focuses on the justice still due these four men following their release. Victims of earlier cases of wrongful conviction and even wrongful execution have received state compensation following their exoneration. Ruan makes it clear that compensation is not enough; accountability is also needed if there is to be any hope of changing the behavior of law enforcement officials and judicial personnel and preventing wrongful convictions.
The authorities in Jiangxi should be given credit for acknowledging past mistakes in the Leping case and righting the wrong that has been done. But it should not be forgotten that the four original defendants in the Leping case are free today largely because of the efforts of lawyers and others who continuously fought to challenge the conviction and demand justice. In China’s current legal environment, where questioning a court decision can be construed as a challenge to judicial authority or even be considered a politically subversive act, it remains to be seen how many lawyers will continue to stand up on behalf of defendants like those in the Leping case.
It is Right and Proper for Victims of Injustice to File Complaints
The Beijing News, January 17, 2017
According to The Beijing Times social media channel, the five men wrongfully convicted in the "Leping 5.24 Murder Case”, together with their lawyers, have filed a criminal complaint with the Jiangxi Procuratorate, accusing police and procurators of “intentional homicide” and the Jiangxi High Court judge, who originally handed down the sentence against Huang Zhiqiang and three other defendants of “bending the law for personal interest”. The complainants have requested that their allegations be submitted to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and that provincial law enforcement and judicial authorities completely recuse themselves from the case.
The difficult step, taken by these victims of wrongful conviction with the help of lawyers, to file these criminal complaints has immeasurable practical significance and social impact.
The past few years have seen the reversal of a number of wrongful conviction cases with major national influence. Not too long ago, the defendants in the Leping case were acquitted by the Jiangxi High Court. According to the provisions of the State Compensation Law, victims of wrongful conviction may seek compensation ranging from a few million yuan to tens of millions. In cases ranging from the Huugjilt case, to the case of the uncle and nephew surnamed Zhang, to the Nie Shubin case, the victims or their immediate family members all applied for state compensation, however none filed criminal complaints against those responsible for the case.
From a technical legal perspective, there are challenges involving discovery and making a legal case that must be overcome in order to prove criminal wrongdoing by someone carrying out their duties in the handling of a case. From a practical legal standpoint, without institutional safeguards or effective oversight mechanisms, it is also difficult to get law enforcement or judicial bodies to bring “their own” to justice. It is therefore not hard to understand the sense of helplessness that makes victims of injustice unwilling to initiate complaint procedures.
Despite this environment, the victims of injustice in the Leping case were still willing to file their complaints. The key significance of their action is that they are claiming their inherent rights. At the present, when a country governed by laws [is advocated], there is long-lasting value in using an individual case such as this to force law-enforcement personnel and judicial authorities to investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate in accordance with the law.
If we take a moment to sift through the wrongful convictions that have been overturned in the past few years, we find that nearly all of them involved coercion of confessions through torture, insufficient evidence, or unclear facts. Nevertheless, contrary to the rule of law, the investigation, prosecution, and adjudication processes all managed to produce a guilty verdict and force victims to either die an unjust death or spend years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. It’s hard to chalk this up simply to a lack of professional quality among those who handled the case; sometimes, the problem is that those handling the case perverted the course of justice.
Reasonably speaking, the exercise of the Leping victims’ rights is both justified and normal. In compliance with the law, the Jiang Xi legal authorities should grant them adequate protection and response.
Even though many wrongful convictions are connected to institutional problems, inadequacies of laws and regulations, or even human interventions and policies, these things cannot be used as excuses for legal officials to evade responsibility in handling cases. The legitimacy of how evidence is obtained, the proper finding of facts, and the proper application of the law have all been explicitly formulated in the provisions of both substantive and procedural law, even when we look at the legal provisions from 10 or 20 years ago.
It’s possible that some of the people responsible for these miscarriages of justice lacked respect in the law or lacked faith in the idea of in judicial fairness. If that’s the case, the malicious intent behind their deliberate actions and perversions of the law will be relatively evident.
No matter what the outcome will be, the fact that the victims of the Leping wrongful conviction case have filed their complaint ought to get the attention of those who design the legal system. It also ought to alert those in the judicial and law-enforcement agencies of the need, in the future operation of the legal system, to reduce and eliminate wrongful convictions and give due legal punishment to those legal personnel responsible for making those wrongful convictions.