Authorities in the central province of Henan on Thursday rejected an appeal from a man sentenced to death for killing a police officer who was forcibly escorting him home from a petitioning trip in the Chinese capital.
Veteran activist Xu Youchen and his wife Zhang Xiaoyu were initially both detained on suspicion of killing the police officer on July 17, 2014 as they were being escorted home from Beijing to prevent them from complaining about the local government.
The couple were both formally charged with intentional homicide on Aug. 2, but Zhang's charges were later changed to "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," for which she received a three-year jail term on Dec. 12, 2016.
Xu was sentenced to death for the killing of a police officer on the same day by the Sanmenxia Intermediate People's Court in Henan.
At his trial, he admitted intending to injure the police officer, but his lawyers said the court had failed to prove that he intended to kill the man.
Rights groups have also cited procedural irregularities with the handling of the policeman's death.
Authorities cremated the body of the policeman allegedly killed by the couple just four days after he died, making it impossible to re-examine the exact time and cause of death, Amnesty International reported.
But the Henan Provincial High People's Court rejected his appeal on Thursday, upholding the original verdict and sentence, Xu's lawyer told RFA.
"The appeal court upheld the death penalty, which won't now be implemented until the case has been reviewed by the Supreme People's Court," defense attorney Lin Qilei said.
"This isn't the kind of case in which the sentence would be carried out immediately; we could still achieve our aim if the Supreme Court rejects the death penalty during the review process," Lin said.
"But if it approves the death penalty, then they will carry out the sentence."
'We don't feel very optimistic'
Lin said Xu's defense had been based on the argument that he hadn't intended to kill the police officer.
"The appeal court's decision was unfair, because this wasn't intentional homicide," he said. He said the authorities had refused to release surveillance footage surrounding the police officer's death.
"They haven't dared to let the lawyers see it," Lin said.
Xu's son said he had expected his father's appeal to be rejected, however.
"We felt during the appeal that the attitude of the prosecution had hardened a good deal; it was as if they wanted [the death penalty] at all costs," the younger Xu said.
"But I don't think my father should bear all of the responsibility; I think that 40-60 percent of the blame lies with the local government, who acted like bandits in arbitrarily depriving people of their liberty," he said. "Overall, we don't feel very optimistic about the outcome."
Last August, a court in the eastern province of Shandong commuted the death sentence handed down to Ding Hanzhong, a forced evictee who killed two workers who came to demolish his home in 2013, to an effective life sentence in prison.
The decision came after the Shandong High People's Court ordered a retrial on appeal, citing a failure to prove the material facts of the case.
And in May 2015, authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu on Friday handed down an eight-year prison term to a retired People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldier for attacking members of a demolition gang who came to raze his home.
Fan Mugen was found guilty of "intentional wounding" by the Suzhou Intermediate People's Court following his trial in early February.
Retired PLA soldier Fan allegedly attacked two members of a demolition gang that came to evict his family from their home on Dec. 3, 2013, and who he said beat up his wife. The two men later died.
Cases like Xu's, Ding's and Fan's are politically sensitive, as they come amid growing public anger over the use of violent forced evictions, often with no warning or due process, by local governments to reclaim land for lucrative redevelopment or speculation.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.