A Chinese court in the eastern province of Jiangxi on Thursday overturned four murder, rape and robbery convictions from 13 years ago after a prolonged campaign by activists and lawyers, some of whom are now themselves behind bars.
Huang Zhiqiang, Fang Chunping, Cheng Fagen and Cheng Lihe were acquitted of murder, rape and robbery by the Jiangxi Higher People's Court following a retrial on Nov. 30, Fang Chunping's lawyer Zhang Weiyu told RFA.
"The 20-odd minutes from 9.00 a.m. to 9.22 a.m. consisted entirely of the sentencing hearing," Zhang said, speaking as he, the four defendants and their legal team headed home.
"The court found that the facts were unclear and the evidence insufficient," he said. "The four defendants were released immediately, from the courtroom."
Official media also cited the judgement as saying that the authenticity and legitimacy of the defendants' confessions were in doubt.
"The next step is to pursue those responsible, and to apply for compensation from the state," Zhang said. "We're not totally satisfied yet, because the court merely said that there were doubts around the facts of the case, and not that they were plain wrong."
"Fang Chunping has been steadfast through all of this, and he wants us to go after those people who forced a confession out of him now."
The four have been the focus of a long-running legal campaign after they were sentenced to death in July 2003 by the Intermediate People's Court in Jiangxi's Jingdezhen city, which found them guilty of crimes committed on May 23, 2000 in Leping city, 40 kilometres to the south.
While an earlier retrial in November 2004 upheld the sentences, the provincial Higher People's Court commuted them to suspended death
sentences before sending them back to jail.
Lax judicial process
Much of the evidence presented at the second retrial was unavailable to investigators at the time of the crime, Cheng Lihe's defense attorney Wang Fei told RFA after it had ended.
"The court was pretty much of the same opinion as [the defense]," Wang said in an interview on Nov. 30. "They thought the evidence was insufficient and the facts of the case unclear."
"The police relied too heavily on confessions, and not enough on objective evidence," he said. "For example, cigarette butts at the scene of the crime weren't DNA tested because that wasn't available [in 2000]."
"They based their case on those confessions ... it was a very lax example of judicial process."
Wang welcomed the result on Thursday, however.
"We are still pretty excited," he said, adding that that the entire process had been laboriously hard.
"Every step has been extremely hard to achieve," he said. "We always thought that this day would come, and we needed this result."
Jiangxi Higher People's Court vice president Xia Keqin apologized on Thursday to the four, and said they had the right to compensation from the state, the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, reported.
An employee who answered the phone at the court on Thursday declined to comment further on the details of the case, however.
Lawyers for case still in jail
The ruling has prompted questions surrounding the fate of lawyers and rights activists who are now behind bars, in part because of their involvement in the campaign for the Leping defendants.
"I have been following the Leping ... case since 2006," Chinese legal scholar Teng Biao, who is currently in the United States, said via Twitter when the ruling was announced.
"Now, four innocent members of a rural community are on their way home after being incarcerated for 14-and-a-half years," Teng wrote.
"But lawyer Li Heping, Dr. Xu Zhiyong, lawyer Li Chunfu, [rights activist] "The Butcher" Wu Gan and lawyer Jiang Tianyong, among others, are still behind bars after spending many years working on this case," he said.
Wu Gan was initially detained last year and handed a 10-day administrative sentence after staging a protest outside the Jiangxi Higher People's Court in support of the Leping defendants.
He was later placed under criminal detention on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," "libel," and "incitement to subvert state power."
The "libel" charge was later dropped and his case transferred to Tianjin, making it likely that he is being treated as part of a nationwide crackdown on lawyers and rights activists that began July 9, 2015 with a raid on the Beijing Fengrui law firm.
Wu's lawyers say he has suffered torture in detention, following similar reports from the lawyers and relatives of Li Heping and Wang Quanzhang.
Meanwhile, authorities in the southern province of Hunan are holding rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong under criminal detention on suspicion of fraud and "illegal possession of state secrets."
Anti-graft campaigner and rights activist Xu Zhiyong was handed a four-year jail term in January 2014 on public order charges after staging a street protest calling for greater transparency from the country's richest and most powerful people.
Li Chunfu remains in police custody since his detention in July 2015 on suspicion of "subversion of state power," and his case has been repeatedly delayed.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Ding Wenqi and Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.