A farmer in Anhui Province was freed from prison after 16 years when a judge conducting a retrial ruled that confessions police obtained by apparently torturing suspects were flawed.
Zhang Yun was set free on July 17 after winning an acquittal in Suzhou Intermediate People's Court, in the eastern province of Anhui, in a case involving the strangling death of a 17-year-old village girl in 1996. The judge ruled that the confessions of Zhang and other men initially convicted in the case were flawed.
Zhang Yun, the former main defendant, chats with his fellow villagers.
The retrial included a host of testimony that Zhang and other suspects were subjected to police torture, and one witness said officers forced him to lie.
China's police have been banned from torturing suspects and courts have been told to throw out illegally obtained evidence, but defense lawyers say they often have trouble getting this done in criminal trials.
Many people in China are skeptical that defendants will get fair trials, in part because cases of wrongfully convicted people being executed have appeared in the news lately.
The Anhui case dates to June 4, 1996, when the body of a teenage girl was found on a road near the village of Wangzhuang, where she and the five men were from.
In February 1999, police blamed the killing on five farmers. Zhang and four others – Zhang Hu, Zhang Dafa, Xu Wenhai and Wu Jingxin – went on trial in Fuyang Intermediate People's Court in September that year.
The defendants, who are now all in their early 50s, initially confessed to taking the girl hostage because they were involved in a land dispute with her father, court documents show. They claimed they strangled her while trying to keep her quiet and later dumped her body on a road.
Zhang Yun was the main defendant in the case, and was handed a suspended death sentence, which usually amounts to life in prison. The four others were jailed for life.
The five had their sentenced trimmed after they filed appeals. Zhang Yun's sentence was formally reduced to life in prison by the court in Fuyang in 2001. The other four were given prison terms of 10 to 15 years, and eventually served eight to 10 years each.
The relatives of the five farmers petitioned higher authorities to look into the case in the ensuing years, complaining that the men were tortured into confessions and no evidence linked them to the girl's death.
The relatives of Zhang Hu said that he never borrowed a red car that was spotted where the teenager's body was found. The relatives of the men also said police got the confessions by depriving the men of sleep and food.
For the first time since 1999, the five farmers return to hometown after being released as not guilty
By February last year, the family members had convinced the top court in Anhui Province – the same court that rejected the farmers' final appeal in 2002 – to order a retrial. That court told the Suzhou Intermediate People's Court to conduct new trial, which started in September.
A prison inmate testified in the retrial that Zhang Hu could not get out of bed for two days after being beaten by police during an interrogation. Zhang Yun also told the court that he was tortured so badly he required treatment in a hospital, and the lawyer for one of the defendants said that the farmer had to stand outside one winter day while police officers doused him with water.
A witness also testified that police forced him to lie that he lent a red car to Zhang Hu.
The judge acquitted the men on July 17, ruling that the farmers' confessions were inconsistent and did not match witness accounts and evidence.
The teenage girl's killing remains unsolved.
The five farmers did not say if they will seek a payout for their ordeal. The central government recently raised the amount people who are wrongfully imprisoned can claim as compensation.