China's Supreme People's Court on Thursday overturned the death penalties handed to two men found guilty of forcing an 11-year-old girl from the central province of Hunan into prostitution, although it said the original convictions weren't in dispute.
Zhou Junhui and Qin Xing had been found guilty of "rape, organizing prostitution and forcing others into prostitution."
Their sentences came after years of campaigning which led to a spell in labor camp for the Hunan-based mother of the victim, Tang Hui, sparking an outcry on China's social media networks.
Tang's daughter, now 18, was forced into prostitution multiple times and raped by several men in turn, leaving her with genital herpes and post-traumatic stress disorder, the official Xinhua news agency said on Thursday.
It said the Supreme Court didn't take issue with the facts of the case, however.
"Zhou and Qin's crimes were serious both in terms of circumstances and consequences," the agency quoted the Supreme Court judgement as saying.
"Zhou and Qin acted as principal criminals, and the facts of their crimes identified in the first and second instance were clear, substantial and sufficient, and the conviction was accurate," the court found.
But the court had decided that the consequences of their actions didn't merit "an immediate death penalty."
According to a court official, the decision is in line with a new policy on death penalties, all of which are subject to review by the country's highest court after a number of alleged miscarriages of justice at provincial level, Xinhua said.
"The Supreme Court reviews death penalties in accordance with facts and laws, and takes a prudent attitude in issuing capital punishment," it quoted the official as saying.
Tang said on Thursday she was "very sad" at the news, and that the judgement was unfair on her daughter.
"They have laid waste my daughter's life, and yet they are still alive and well," she told RFA. "I will be hiring an attorney to fight this once again."
"I want to fight this through legal channels, but I will also be lodging petitions and complaints, because we have the right to do this," Tang said.
"If I don't petition, how else will my voice be heard? And to whom will I speak?"
Tang said her daughter was in a better state than before, and has been able to return to school.
"But her sexually transmitted disease is proving hard to treat, and she has to see the doctor regularly," Tang said.
She said she would try to shield her daughter from the knowledge of the Supreme Court's decision. "But if she goes online, she'll probably see it anyway," she added.
Lengthy sentence likely
Beijing-based criminal lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said suspended death sentences, which are commuted to a long prison term after two years' good behavior, or life sentences now looked likely for the two men.
"Not every death penalty is approved," said Liu, referring to regulations in place since 2007 requiring the final approval of the Supreme Court before executions can be authorized.
"The Supreme Court overturns between 10 and 15 percent of cases, or thereabouts," he said. "There are times when they won't approve death sentences that have been approved by the High People's Courts."
"Most of them turn into suspended death sentences or life imprisonment, once they are sent back for a retrial."
In July 2013, the Hunan Provincial People's High Court overturned the decision of a lower court and awarded Tang compensation for infringement of her rights and psychological damage in connection with her labor camp sentence.
Following a public outcry, the judgement criticized the municipal re-education through labor commission in Tang's hometown of Yongzhou for infringing on her personal freedom and inflicting mental distress, ordering it to pay her 2,941 yuan (U.S.$480) in compensation.
Tang was sentenced to 18 months in labor camp in August 2012 for "disturbing social order," after she challenged the prison sentences of men convicted of raping her daughter, calling for their execution.
China abolished the "re-education through labor" system of administrative punishments at the end of last year, although lawyers and rights activists have warned that similar punishments are still being handed down without trial, but in other guises.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.