Authorities in China's eastern province of Zhejiang this week tried an octogenarian in connection with a murder committed during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), in spite of warnings from lawyers that there is scant legal basis for prosecuting him.
The man, identified only by his surname Qiu, stood accused of killing a doctor surnamed Hong in 1967, in a one-day hearing at the municipal People's Court in Ruian, official media reported.
Witnesses described how Qiu and several accomplices "strangled Hong and later broke his limbs and buried his body," the Global Times newspaper reported.
Officials said on Wednesday that Qiu was apprehended after nearly three decades on the run after murder charges were filed in the early 1980s, the paper said.
The case has sparked strong debate in China, where the Cultural Revolution is rarely discussed either in public or in tightly controlled state-run media.
Some online commentators said Qiu shouldn't be prosecuted for a crime that happened more than 40 years ago, while others saw the case as a possible harbinger of a more public reckoning with the political violence of the era.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said via his account on the Twitter-like service Sina Weibo that it is unfair to go after a single old man, when so many other murders had taken place during the same period.
"I haven't seen any evidence of judicial evenhandedness or of political transparency," Liu wrote.
In a reference to late supreme leader Mao Zedong, he added: "The biggest perpetrator of the Cultural Revolution is getting off scot-free, and instead they are going after a single common murderer."
The Cultural Revolution has been officially labeled a "mistake of Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four," who launched the initial 1966 campaign against "capitalist-roader" officials.
Meanwhile, Sina Weibo user @81linghai wondered whether Qiu's trial would open the floodgates for similar cases to be brought to court.
"Does this mean we are now going to have a reckoning with the Cultural Revolution?" the user wrote. "Or is this the action of a single judicial official?"
China has yet to authorize any national event in memory of this period in the nation’s history, and many still bear privately the scars of a time when neighbors, colleagues, and families denounced, attacked, and even killed one another in a frenzy of mass political "struggle."
In the ensuing mayhem, qualified professionals like teachers and doctors were locked up in “cow pens,” while schools and universities were closed and health services fell into disarray under the supervision of young "revolutionaries."
"The Cultural Revolution ... was a calamity, and all Chinese people were its victims," Shanxi-based democracy activist Du Guangda said, likening Qiu's trial to the pursuit of Nazi war criminals to hideouts in South America.
"They were arrested and put on trial," he said. "This showed fairness and justice."
The number of people who died during the Cultural Revolution remains unknown, although Harvard scholar John K. Fairbank once estimated that half a million people died during 1967 alone.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi said the scope of violence seen during that period was huge, encompassing military-style fighting, mob attacks, torture, and summary executions.
"So far, I haven't heard that any of these people have been brought to justice," Ding said. "The number who were rehabilitated [after being found guilty of political 'crimes'] on government initiative was also very small."
He said Qiu's case exceeds a 20-year statute of limitations in Chinese criminal law, which in itself should exempt him from criminal proceedings.
"From a legal point of view, this case cannot be pursued, because we didn't even have a criminal law until 1979," Ding said.
In 2010, plans to hold a moment of silence for the victims of the Cultural Revolution during a 50th anniversary celebration at the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute were shelved.
Instead, the master of ceremonies merely expressed regret that principal Mo Ping, who died in 1968 after suffering severe beatings at the hands of Red Guards, "and others," could not attend the celebration.
Soon after, a group of former "Red Guards," Mao Zedong's army of students who denounced and persecuted teachers, doctors, and other authority figures in the name of revolution, made a rare public apology to their former teachers whom they had beaten and spit upon.
In 2006, officials in Guangdong's Shantou city built a museum to honor those who died in the southern province during the political chaos.
The museum, which is privately financed and advertises only discreetly on the Internet, sits at the top of Tashan, a mountain where many of the Cultural Revolution dead from the nearby city of Shantou were buried.
Research has shown that in Shantou alone, 100,000 people were accused as criminals, while more than 4,500 were injured or disabled, and that some 400 people died.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.