One of China’s most prominent domestic violence cases has reached its final resolution, as the Ziyang Intermediate People’s Court in Sichuan has restored the murder conviction of a woman who killed her abusive husband, reports The Guardian.
Last Friday, a Sichuan court concluded the case of Li Yan, a 44-year-old woman who was originally sentenced to death for the murder of her husband, Tan Yong, in 2011. However, in a rare move, the Supreme People’s Court (China’s pre-eminent judicial institution) annulled the verdict and ordered a retrial following a high-profile campaign calling for fairer treatment of victims of domestic abuse who kill their partners. In last week’s decision, the Sichuan court restored the murder conviction, but reduced Li’s sentence to death with a two-year reprieve, which generally amounts to life imprisonment, sometimes with the possibility of parole.
After the court arrived at its verdict, the courthouse was thrown into turmoil as Tan’s relatives protested the decision. Having clamoured for Li to be executed, members of the deceased’s family vented their rage at her lawyer and female rights activists who were also in attendance. Two of Tan’s relatives hurled their shoes at the lawyers; while one of the activists also claimed to have been physically attacked by them.
Not only were Tan’s family aggrieved by the decision, but women’s rights activists also expressed their disenchantment with the legal system’s treatment of battered women in murder trials. Feng Yuan, a feminist and longtime campaigner against domestic violence, argued that the decision does not comply with the Supreme People’s Court’s opinion on “justified defense”, which advises courts as to the appropriate punishment for homicides born out of “heinous circumstances”:
I am very disappointed. Not that I had very high expectations before the retrial, but according to the latest guidelines on cases involving domestic violence issued by the supreme court, Li Yan’s case should not be counted as murder.
However, some regard the reduced sentence as not just a reprieve for Li, but also the first judicial acknowledgement of spousal abuse as a mitigating factor in murder cases. Nicholas Bequelin, director for East Asia at Amnesty International, believes the outcome will act as “a foothold to future cases” and “gives a measure of legitimacy to people who are pressing for more activism on the issue of domestic violence.”
Guo Jianmei, one of Li’s lawyers, suspected other political factors were also influential in the decision. Legal scholars claim that courts in China are asked to consider “social stability” when adjudicating such cases, sometimes handing down a harsher sentence to appease the victim’s family. Ms Guo felt that the court delivered a more severe sentence to temper the wrath of the Tan family, which she described as influential in local politics.
Domestic violence in China has drawn more media attention in recent years following the release of damming statistics and a number of high-profile cases. Yet, since it was first outlawed in 2001, activists have been disappointed with the lack of legislative redress. In November 2014, China finally drafted its first-ever domestic abuse laws, which proposed making it mandatory for police to investigate claims of family violence and suggested the issuing of restraining orders to ensure physical protection from attackers. However, the draft has yet to become a comprehensive policy and, as it stands, does not outlaw marital rape or include protection for non-married or homosexual couples (who are actually prohibited from marrying in China). The legislation is due for its first reading before the National People’s Congress standing committee in August.
By Liam Bourke