Authorities in the southwestern Chinese megacity of Chongqing have overturned a labor camp sentence handed down during the rule of the city's once-powerful politician Bo Xilai, in a decision which is likely to spark a wave of similar appeals in the wake of Bo's ouster.
Chongqing's Re-education Through Labor Committee announced on Monday the "cancellation" of a two-year sentence handed down to local cartoonist Peng Hong in 2009.
Peng had posted on a popular forum a political cartoon that took aim at Bo's anti-crime campaigns, which some have likened to the arbitrary criminal convictions of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) era.
The powerful Bo, the ruling Chinese Communist Party's former Chongqing secretary, was sacked on March 15 and is currently under investigation for unspecified "disciplinary violations."
The announcement overturning Peng's conviction, dated Sept. 7, 2012, comes a year after he finished serving the sentence, according to his lawyer, top rights advocate Pu Zhiqiang.
Peng was released from the labor re-education facility on Sept. 10, 2011.
"The reason [his sentence was overturned] was improper handling of the case," Pu said in an interview on Wednesday. "According to today's regulations on re-education through labor, he wouldn't have been convicted."
The government decision said the committee had determined "through re-investigation" that the original decision regarding Peng Hong’s re-education through labor sentence was inappropriate.
According to Chongqing-based netizen Fang Hong, whose own labor camp conviction was overturned in June, the authorities had asked the cartoonist to keep the decision quiet.
"They went and had a chat with him and said they wanted to keep this low-key," Fang said, adding that the government had compensated Peng with a 120,000 yuan (U.S. $19,000) payout.
"The police worked together with the finance department to offer him some financial support, and they are looking for a job for him," he added. "They are hoping that he won't go talking to the media about this affair."
However, news of the decision was reported in the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis News, prompting netizens once more to pass around copies of Peng's critical cartoon, titled “Umbrella of Protection,” which was originally posted to the Tianya forum in 2009.
That year saw the height of the "strike black" campaigns run by Bo and his righthand man and police chief Wang Lijun, which rights lawyers have said targeted innocent entrepreneurs, confiscating their fortunes.
The cartoon depicts a criminal running with a knife in one hand while holding an umbrella which is capped with the head of a policeman, suggesting Wang, as well as a golden coin, indicating graft.
The umbrella also carries an official seal of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, suggesting that the real criminals are receiving government protection.
Bo's Chongqing administration charged Peng with defamation for posting the cartoon, a conviction that was overturned following legal assistance by Pu. However, no formal appeal or lawsuit was lodged, online sources said.
Peng isn't the first to have a sentence "canceled," but he is the first to have been granted such a decision without the need for a court case, according to another rehabilitated labor camp inmate.
Fang Hong's one-year labor camp term for speaking out critically online against Bo and Wang's much-touted anti-crime campaigns was overturned in June, after he sued the authorities.
The Party has already begun investigating claims of official abuse of power during Bo and Wang's anti-gang campaigns, according to lawyers familiar with the allegations of forced confessions and torture.
Li Zhuang, a whistle-blowing lawyer who worked on a high-profile anti-gang case in 2009, said via his account on the popular Sina microblogging service that the authorities were quietly probing claims of forced confessions and rights abuses during the campaigns, which won political plaudits at the time for Bo and his then police chief Wang Lijun.
The re-education through labor committee nullified Fang's sentence after he filed a lawsuit with the Chongqing No. 3 Intermediate People's Court, official media reported at the time.
The decisions handed down to Peng and Fang will likely open up the floodgates for a wave of appeals against Chongqing-based labor camp sentences, which can be handed down for a maximum of three years by administrative committees, without the need for a trial.
The wife of Dai Yuequan, a disabled petitioner from Chongqing, said this week that her husband had already lodged an appeal with a local court against his labor camp sentence of 15 months, which he is still serving.
However, the couple remain under tight police surveillance, and Dai's wife, surnamed Liao, said there had been no word yet from the court on whether it would accept the case.
She was reluctant to discuss her husband's appeal of his June 11 sentencing for "disturbing public order."
"His health is very poor and he's not doing well [in there]," Liao said. "He looks all right on the face of it, but his illness is worsening, and they never let him get any medical treatment."
Dai's sentence came after he was detained for seeking redress for grievances related to workplace injuries in Beijing, the China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said in an e-mailed statement at the time.
"Interceptors from Tongliang County seized Dai on May 11 near the residence he was renting in the capital, and proceeded to blindfold, handcuff, and beat him," the group said.
Dai began petitioning after suffering a debilitating injury while making repairs in a reservoir and receiving little financial compensation to cover lost wages and medical costs, it said.
He is currently serving his sentence in Chongqing's Xishanping Re-education Through Labor camp.
Last week, authorities in the southwestern city of Chengdu formally charged Wang Lijun with defection and abuse of official power, as well as "bending the law for selfish ends, defection, abuse of power, and bribe-taking," the official Xinhua news agency reported, citing official sources.
The indictment document accuses Wang of serious dereliction of duty for not pursuing an investigation into the wife of his boss, then Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, whose removal from office was triggered by Wang's Feb. 6 visit to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.
Wang is believed to have told U.S. officials that Bo's wife Gu Kailai had murdered a British businessman.
Gu was handed a suspended death sentence by a court in Anhui province last month for the "intentional homicide" of businessman Neil Heywood, who was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room last November.
Also on Wang's charge sheet was the crime of "defection," linked to his visit to the U.S. Consulate, official media reported.
No official announcements have yet been made about Bo's fate, although analysts say the Party leadership will want to finish the job of laying to rest the biggest political scandal in decades ahead of the Party Congress, for which no date has been announced yet.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Gao Shan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.