Wrongful Execution Sparks Controversy in China

April 8, 2005

(Updated March 31) News that Hebei police likely executed an innocent man ten years ago has caused an outcry in China and is fueling public debate over the death penalty. On March 13, a Henan newspaper revealed that a detainee suspected of committing a series of murders had voluntarily confessed to a 1994 rape and killing for which another man was executed. News of the case spread quickly in Chinese domestic media and Internet chatrooms and has reportedly caused a national uproar. The story, which broke as Chinese leaders were in the midst of a discussion over death penalty reforms, has also intensified calls for the Supreme People’s Court to once again review all death sentences (see related stories here and here) and for the government to consider broad reforms to China's criminal justice system.

According to various reports, local police in Yuhua, a suburb of Shijiazhuang city, arrested Nie Shubin in 1994 for the rape and murder of a local woman. Family members and neighbors claim that Nie, a 20-year-old laborer with a severe stutter and a gentle nature, was an unlikely murder suspect. Several reports suggest that Nie initially denied involvement in the murder, but later confessed under torture by investigators. In early 1995, a court convicted Nie and he was executed. The case came to light again in January of this year, when police in a nearby county captured a man suspected of several local murders. Under questioning, that man reportedly confessed to the 1994 killing near Shijiazhuang and described the crime scene with precision. Although a provincial investigation is ongoing, police familiar with the case have all but acknowledged that the new detainee is the actual killer. A lawyer for Nie’s parents is preparing filings for a reversal of Nie’s guilty verdict and for state compensation.

According to a Boxun report published March 21, China’s propaganda ministry issued an urgent decree forbidding domestic media from publishing further reports on the case. The accuracy of that report may be questioned, as Xinhua, the People’s Daily, Southern Weekend, and other sources have subsequently published articles and “netizen” commentary on the case and its implications. However, various sources report that local officials responsible for investigating Nie ten years ago are stonewalling inquiries and that information on the new local investigation has been tightly held. Southern Weekend has voiced concerns about lack of transparency in the Hebei investigation and called for an external inquiry.

Chinese authorities may be concerned that the Nie case will become the latest in a series of law enforcement scandals that have prompted broad calls for criminal justice reform. In 2003, for example, public outrage over the beating death of a detainee in Guangzhou forced the government to scrap a long-criticized form of administrative detention called custody and repatriation. A March 24 editorial in Southern Weekend explicitly tied the two cases together and expressed hope the Nie case would serve as the catalyst for reform of the death penalty review system. Other Chinese sources have gone farther, arguing that the case highlights the need for a re-evaluation of the entire criminal process.

For more detailed information on the case, as well as links to other English and Chinese sources consulted in this summary and analysis, see below.


Chinese journalists investigating the Nie case have exposed a number of disturbing facts about his detention and trial. Lawyers and officials involved in his case, who are reportedly under considerable public and official pressure and attempting to divert blame for the apparent mistake, have also made comments that highlight longstanding systemic problems in China’s criminal process.

Several accounts of the case suggest that while Nie confessed to the crime, he did so only after extended torture by police. Nie was apparently an unlikely murder suspect. His mother and neighbors note that he had a severe stutter and few friends, but characterize him as a polite and gentle individual. One report suggests he was so timid that he could not kill a family chicken. Nie’s mother claims that his defense lawyer told her that when he asked Nie why he had confessed after initially denying that he committed the crime, Nie responded “because I was beaten.” At the time of the investigation, police involved in the case also reportedly published an article in the Shijiazhuang Daily noting that Nie confessed after a week of interrogation during which investigators “skillfully applied psychological tactics and evidence.” Chinese journalists citing this article argue that it creates an inference of torture. Investigators claim that Nie confessed from the beginning, and Nie’s lawyer, while acknowledging that torture was rampant at the time, says that Nie never accused officials of mistreating him.

Accounts of the case also raise questions about the adequacy of Nie’s legal defense. Nie’s lawyer reports that he only met with his client three times prior to trial, and that due to the confession he could only argue for leniency on the grounds that his client had cooperated with authorities. According to Southern Weekend:

[The lawyer] acknowledged that ten years ago, the position and function of lawyers was quite limited. Judicial organs couldn't attach much importance to our views, and balancing prosecution and defense was out of the question. ‘Even now, while the function of lawyers has been enhanced, this kind of situation has not really changed, especially in criminal cases.’

Moreover, at the time of Nie’s trial almost all domestic law firms were state-run, and Chinese law obligated lawyers both to their clients and to the interests of the state. Comments by Nie’s lawyer reflect these realities and suggest that his interests were not completely aligned with those of his client. The lawyer disputes that he accepted money from Nie’s family, noting that he worked for a “state-run” law firm at that time and was on a fixed salary. As he states in one account, “In my work as a lawyer, upholding the dignity of the law and safeguarding the interests of the people were my principles. Even if there was a mistake, it was not my fault.”

The fairness of Nie’s trial is also being questioned. In the Shijiazhuang Daily article published prior to the trial (noted above), police reportedly characterized Nie as a “savage criminal,” suggesting a presumption of guilt. It is unclear whether the trial itself was open. The trial court judgment, which was not provided to Nie’s family until this year, reportedly only stated that Nie was guilty and did not explain the evidence on which the judgment was based (information that is now required in Chinese criminal judgments.) Finally, while the prosecutor and judge claim that the evidence in the case was sound, the trial judge recently suggested to a Southern Weekend reporter that he was following orders when he issued the verdict. “At that time, the evidence from the investigation was relatively abundant and sturdy,” he is reported as saying, “Now, I can't say whether this case was correct or not. It's determined by what the leaders say. Whatever the leaders say is what I decide.”

Authorities involved in Nie’s arrest and trial are reportedly under enormous pressure and resisting media inquiries and the official investigation into the case. Local police and prosecutors have argued that the case was based on sound evidence and is closed, and the Shijiazhuang court that tried Nie claims to have lost the trial records. According to various reports, Hubei provincial officials, acting at the direction of the Ministry of Public Security, have formed an official “small group” to investigate the case. However, information about the investigation is being controlled tightly, and one Chinese source indicates that local resistance has created a “stalemate.” In a March 24 editorial, Southern Weekend expressed concern about lack of transparency and the possibility that local officials would negotiate a solution. It called for investigators from outside Hubei to look into the case.

Such resistance is not surprising, given that fact that the police station, prosecutors office, and court involved in the case are all potentially liable for damages under China’s State Compensation Law. In addition, the judge could potentially be disciplined for a wrongful judgment under Supreme People’s Court regulations. Nie’s family has hired a lawyer to petition for a rehearing of Nie’s case, file for state compensation, and pursue criminal charges against those responsible for the wrongful arrest and judgment.

As noted above, the case of Nie Shubin has the potential to become the latest in a series of “focusing cases” that have fixed public attention on law enforcement abuses and forced the government to enact criminal justice reforms. In 2003, a young man named Sun Zhigang was mistakenly detained in Guangzhou and beaten to death in custody. News of his death forced the State Council to repeal a form of administrative detention called “custody and repatriation” that was often abused by local authorities. Also in 2003, a young infant named Li Siyi died of neglect after Chengdu police detained her mother and ignored her pleas that she had a child at home. Public anger over the Sun Zhigang and Li Siyi cases, which authorities interpreted as a sign of general frustration with law enforcement abuses, prompted the Chinese government to launch a series of new reforms and public relations campaigns that continue today (for more information on these campaigns, see the criminal justice section of the CECC Annual Report). As several of the articles linked below suggest, the Nie case is generating a similar reform dynamic.

This summary and analysis is based on a collection of sources. For English-language accounts of the case, click here and here. For Chinese accounts, click on the following: (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Partial translations of several Chinese articles on the case are available here and here.