May 25, 2005 -- Spring was bittersweet this year for She Xianglin. The prison guards released him in early April after 11 years in prison. After She's "murder victim" -- his wife -- resurfaced in his village, authorities realized he had been convicted for a crime he never committed.
She's wife had disappeared in the mid-'90s. When a woman's body was found in the town's reservoir, authorities accused the young man of killing his bride. Despite repeated petitions to the court, She's claims of innocence went unheard until his "victim" sauntered into their hometown to see the family.
A free man again, She, 39, has decided to move on, but many Chinese want change, saying his story highlights China's overzealous police, the courts' lack of power and the country's arbitrary criminal legal system.
"The individual cases of injustice put a human face on the systemic and structural lack of protection for people's rights," said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China.
The People's Republic of China has come a long way when it comes to civil rights. After a decade of lawlessness during the 1970s Cultural Revolution, China initiated legal reforms in the early 1980s. Fifteen years later, the Communist party, under international pressure, amended the criminal law to codify existing regulations and address the lack of due process. The number of lawyers has mushroomed to more than 100,000 from just 200 in 1992, according to an article in People's Daily.
But more lawyers and new laws have not wiped out vast corruption in the legal system and the ironclad political hold by the Communist Party over the courts throughout the country.
The Good Life Gone Wrong
At the age of 28, She Xianglin had it made. He worked a regular schedule as a security guard, unlike a lot of his friends who toiled in the fields. He lived with his wife and daughter, and his mother and brother lived close by. They weren't rich like city folk in Shanghai, but Hubei province, in the heart of China along the Yangtze river, suited She just fine.
She's wife aspired to more. Without so much as a goodbye, she fled the village in 1994. After days of searching, police found a decomposed woman's body in a nearby reservoir. They immediately carted She off to prison, convinced he had killed his wife.
"I was brutally beaten for 10 days and nights," She said to China's Xinhua news agency. "All I wanted was to rest for a moment, if they could only let me rest I would play along with anything they suggested."
He did just that and ended up confessing to his wife's murder. The local courts, the People's Court of Jingshan County and the Intermediate People's Court of Jingzhou Prefecture in Hubei, sentenced him to death by immediate execution. Because of skimpy evidence, the Higher People's Court of Hubei ordered a retrial and put him in the slammer for 15 years.
The young man denied ever hurting his wife. He enlisted his mother and brother to help him petition the court to reverse the prison sentence. Little did She know what trouble that would get them in. Police detained both his mother and brother at different times and, after getting nowhere, he told them to stop.
Languishing in his cell, She counted down the years until he could finally see his baby girl.
With four years to go until the end of his sentence, She couldn't understand why prison guards let him go this past April. Zhang Zaiju, She's wife, had grown homesick and had come back to town to see her daughter. In the 11 years she had been gone, she had remarried and had a baby boy in a northern province. The government issued no apology but two weeks later the courts made She's release official and acquitted him of murder.
A media circus ensued as She returned to his village.
"The country can only thrive when regular citizens can enjoy their rights," She's Beijing lawyer, Zhang Chengmao, told the South China Morning Post.
Compared to 30 years ago, things have gotten better in China, but huge problems still exist, said Jonathan Hecht, deputy director of the China Law Center at Yale Law School.
Ironclad Political Control
In his opinion, the legal system cracks under the pressure of the government and local powerhouses. The criminal justice system is "still viewed as a means by which government maintains political control."
He cites a quaint expression Chinese people use to describe the justice system: "The police make the meal, the prosecutors carry the meal and the courts eat the meal."
"The point being, the police control the whole process and the courts are often not in position to oversee a fair examination of what's happened."
Within days of She's release, the Superior Court of Sichuan province, in the western part of China, became the first to declare it would no longer recognize evidence obtained from defendants by torture or threats of violence. Hecht believes it's the right step, but because the police have so much power, he's doubtful of the results.
"The whole structure of the system is designed to generate confessions with torture or without torture," he explains, saying that the police exert a lot of psychological pressure on a detainee. For example, they hold suspects for long periods of time without any chance to post bail and with little access to a lawyer and basically tell the detainee that only a confession will lead to freedom, he said.
Sharon Hom from Human Rights in China agrees. "On the books there is progress, but just because it's on paper doesn't mean that in fact it [the law] will be implemented," she said.
Hom stresses that for the legal system to improve there needs to be accountability and monitoring, citing the lack of transparency in China.
State Secrets Thwart Progress
"If statistics continue to be a state secret, we won't know whether reform is taking place," she said. She's case, along with a few others, has prompted the government to consider having the Supreme Court review death penalty cases and train more judges to handle the additional work. Hom believes that may curtail the frequency of executions but that without reliable data there's no way to gauge progress.
Amnesty International found that 3,800 people were executed worldwide in 2004, with 3,400 of the executions taking place in China. Hom says the figure is likely to err on the low side, quoting a Chinese academic at the Law Academy at the Southwestern Politics and Law University who estimates that more than 10,000 executions took place in China.
In Hecht's view, despite an active law reform movement, the number of death penalty sentences are unlikely to change."I think there is strong support politically and from the society as a whole for the death penalty," he said.
The weakened and half-blind She was lucky. He barely escaped the death penalty and now that he's a free man, he's suing the government for $500,000. Chinese law doesn't recognize psychological trauma and will likely only pay him $30,000. The law compensates wronged citizens by paying them the national average daily salary, multiplied by the number of days the person was in prison.
A newspaper, China's Youth Daily, demanded that the law change, saying it was high time for an amendment. The tricky thing, Hecht points out, is that the same court which found She guilty will also be the one to award him money, which he says is another perversity in the system.
Meanwhile, She's a happy man reunited with his daughter.One thing that hasn't changed for She since his release: he's refused to see his wife. "I want to live a simple and peaceful life," She told the South China Morning Post. "I'm very contented."