Chinese Abuse Victim Gets Reprieve From Death Sentence in Murder Case

china-liyan-july2014-305.gif Li Yan shown in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy of Amnesty International.

A court in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan on Friday handed down a suspended death sentence to a woman convicted of killing her abusive husband in a highly publicized and controversial case.

Sichuan's Ziyang City Intermediate People's Court handed Li Yan a death penalty with a two-year reprieve, a sentence that is typically commuted to a prison sentence after two years' good behavior.

"The original judgment's determination of the facts and conviction was correct and the trial's procedures were lawful, but the assessment of the punishment was inappropriate," the court said in a statement carried by the official news site Sichuan Online.

The decision was welcomed as a partial victory for rights campaigners, and comes after China drew widespread criticism for its detention of five feminists for 37 days for planning an anti-sexual harassment campaign on International Women's Day.

Li's case has prompted far wider discussion on China's tightly controlled Internet than that of the five feminists, however, and has become a focus for campaigners seeking to change social attitudes to violence against women.

Li was initially sentenced to death in spite of previous complaints she had made to police and women's groups of repeated verbal and physical abuse against her.

The Supreme People's Court, which reviews all cases in which a death sentence is passed, overturned the original death penalty, prompting a retrial at the provincial level last November.

According to the Ziyang court, Li's actions still constituted homicide, however.

Evidence was ignored

Li was originally sentenced to death in 2012 for killing her husband Tan Yong, who had physically, sexually, and verbally abused her for more than three years, burning her with cigarettes and cutting off one of her fingers, according to media reports at the time.

The court heard that Li beat Tan to death with an air gun after he threatened to shoot her, before cutting up his body and boiling the pieces.

One of Li's defense lawyers, Guo Jianmei, said she was disappointed with the decision, however.

"She may have received a suspended sentence, but it's still the death penalty," Guo said.

"Such a harsh sentence should only be handed down in cases of extreme seriousness, and when the worst possible crimes have been committed."

"To use this sentence on a woman who kills her husband after suffering years of violent abuse at his hands doesn't take into account the domestic violence and abuse she suffered," she said.

"The evidence of these facts that contributed to the crime once again wasn't taken into account during the retrial," Guo said.

Guo said Tan had not only abused her, but had also sexually abused Li's young daughter on a number of occasions, the first time such an allegation has been made public by the defense.

"It was because of this that Li Yan sought help on a number of occasions from the All China Women's Federation and other departments, but to no avail," Guo said.

"This evidence was also not taken into account by the court."

A possible precedent

Xiong Jing, social media editor of the non-government group Gender in China, said campaigners have been pushing for input into a draft domestic violence law currently being worked on by officials, but without much success.

"There hasn't been much clarity or transparency around this law, right from the start," Xiong said.

"A lot of people, us included, submitted opinions when the first draft was laid out for consultation, so we hope that they will be taken into account during the drafting process," she said.

"But this decision doesn't give us much cause for hope."

William Nee, China researcher at the London-based rights group Amnesty International, said the reprieve for Li could set a precedent for Chinese courts, however.

"The reprieve for Li Yan could prove a landmark verdict for future cases where domestic violence is a mitigating factor," Nee told Reuters news agency.

"Yet, the continued persecution of five young activists that campaign to prevent violence against women casts a dark shadow on this ruling," he added.

The overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group, which translates and collates reports from rights groups inside China, said the sentence was far from a victory for women's rights.

"Sentencing Li Yan to death for the second time testifies to the absolute urgency for legal protection for victims of domestic violence in China," CHRD international director Renee Xia said in an e-mailed statement on Friday.

"China once again shows its unwillingness and its empty promises to protect women," she said.

CHRD quoted Li as telling her lawyer that the murder could have been prevented, had she received adequate legal protection and support from police and other government-backed agencies when she first lodged her complaints.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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