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China's police under scrutiny for forcing murder confessions from the innocent

BEIJING—An unusual surge of heated public debate has engulfed China over the wrongful convictions of two men for murder, one of whom was executed.

The two cases have cast a spotlight on police using torture and beatings to extract confessions from criminal suspects, and the lack of effective appeal procedures.

Government censors, sensitive to rising public anger over the cases, have permitted an unusual outpouring of anger on the Internet and in newspaper editorial pages over the miscarriage of justice, allowing apparent momentum to build for judicial reforms.

In the most recent case, a 39-year-old former security guard from Hubei province in central China, She Xianglin, was released from prison this month when it became obvious that he hadn't murdered his wife.

She's wife disappeared in 1994 after a domestic dispute. Soon after, police found a decomposed female body in a nearby reservoir. Assuming it was the missing wife, they accused him of murder. After several rounds of interrogation, She confessed. He was sentenced to death, but that was reduced later to a 15-year prison term.

She's wife actually had moved to Shandong province in the north, however, where she married another man. She reappeared in Hubei province in late March.

She—who was incarcerated 3,995 days—lost part of a finger and all his toenails under police control, and now has difficulty walking. He's eligible for 220,000 yuan, about $26,600, in compensation for wrongful imprisonment.

His case has touched raw nerves in China, where citizens are gaining awareness of their legal rights.

By Friday afternoon, more than 1,000 messages about the case had been posted on a popular Internet portal, Sohu.com. Other portals also had huge numbers of messages. Many users harshly criticized the police and courts. Some said they found She's compensation pitiful. Others flayed police for beating a "confession" out of him.

"It will be hard for us to achieve a harmonious society if we fail to bring scum from the law enforcement and legal fields to justice," one user wrote.

"I am trembling with fear," another user said. "Maybe the next wronged person will be you or I."

In the other murder case, a young farmer in Hebei province, Nie Shubin, was executed in 1994 after courts convicted him of stopping a bicyclist in a cornfield and raping and killing her. Earlier this year, a criminal suspect in a neighboring province admitted to the rape and murder, describing the murder scene in detail.

In describing the cases for its readers, the newspaper Beijing Youth News lambasted the "dreadful system" that allowed police to pressure people for confessions, thus allowing an "ironclad case" to be built around specious evidence.

Limited judicial reforms may be in the works. The state-owned China Daily newspaper said this week that the nation's highest tribunal, the Supreme People's Court, soon might start reviewing every death-penalty case to ensure "fair and prudent" use of capital punishment.

International human rights groups say that somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 criminal suspects are executed each year in China, more than in all other countries combined.

"Torture is endemic" under police detention, said Nicolas Becquelin of the Hong Kong office of Human Rights in China. Coerced confessions are also routine, he said.

Becquelin said authorities in Beijing might be allowing the unusual airing of gripes over the legal system in order to respond to public wishes with limited reforms that were already in the works.

Authorities keep careful tabs on the airing of grievances on the Internet, knowing that small protests can turn suddenly into public eruptions of anger. In a notorious case in early 2004, as many as 100,000 Internet users a day were posting messages to complain of a BMW driver in the northeastern city of Harbin who was acquitted after she ran over a peasant and killed him.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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