Case of Wrongful Conviction in Henan Captures National Attention

July 8, 2010

In early May, Chinese and international media reported on the case of wrongfully convicted Zhao Zuohai who served 10 years in prison before his alleged murder victim returned home. Subsequent to his release, Zhao reported that officials had repeatedly used torture on him to extract a confession. The case has sparked national debate over the use of torture to coerce confessions in criminal prosecutions.

"The Wrongful Case of Zhao Zuohai"

In early May, Chinese official media reported on the acquittal of 57-year old Zhao Zuohai, who served more than 10 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction, before the "victim" reappeared on April 30, 2010. According to a May 11 Beijing News article (via People's Daily) and a May 14 China Daily article, public security officials began to suspect Zhao Zuohai for the murder of missing neighbor Zhao Zhenshang in 1998, since the two had been involved in a physical altercation in 1997. A May 9 Xinhua article reported that authorities arrested Zhao Zuohai in 1999, after a headless body was discovered in the village. Despite the fact that authorities lacked DNA proof that the body belonged to Zhao Zhenshang, Zhao reportedly confessed to the murder nine times between 1999 and 2001, according to the May 14 China Daily article and a May 11 Procuratorial Daily article. On December 5, 2002, the Shangqiu City Intermediate People's Court sentenced Zhao to death with a two-year reprieve and on February 13, 2003, the Henan Province Higher People's Court approved the verdict, according to a May 15 Southern Metropolis article.

According to a May 12 China Daily article, Zhao Zuohai claimed that he was tortured into confessing the murder and authorities in Shangqiu County of Henan province have admitted wrongdoing. Chinese media outlets have widely reported on Zhao's accusations that public security officials repeatedly tortured him into confessing to the murder. According to a May 12 Southern Metropolis article, Zhao claimed police deprived him of food and sleep, and placed firecrackers on his head to force him to stay awake. The article also details Zhao's claims that public security officers beat him with sticks and drugged his drinking water. Zhao told the Southern Metropolis that, at one point, the police beatings and kicks left him feeling like he would be "better off dead than alive."

On May 10, 2010, the Beijing News reported that the Henan Provincial High Court acquitted Zhao in a retrial on May 8, days after Zhao Zhenshang returned to the village. On May 12, the Shangqiu City Intermediate People's Court awarded Zhao 650,000 yuan (US$96,000) in compensation, according to a May 13 Xinhua article and May 13 People's Daily article. (Zhao had reportedly discussed claiming compensation under China's State Compensation Law with court officials.) Authorities have reportedly arrested three former police officers for their roles in torturing Zhao into confessing to the murder and have suspended four judges for their roles in reviewing the case, according to a May 16 Xinhua article and a May 30 Xinhua article (via China Daily).

Public Debate and Reforms

On June 6, 2010, the Procuratorial Daily reported that the "wrongful" case of Zhao Zuohai” sparked a "great amount of public concern," particularly over the causes behind such an injustice. A June 2 Dui Hua Foundation article on the Zhao case reported on the influence of the case: "The case elicited considerable public commentary, much of it critical of a law enforcement system in which defendants' rights receive few protections." In a May 18 China Daily editorial, the newspaper criticized the justice system's handling of the Zhao case, stating, "Whether 650,000 yuan is the appropriate amount or not is debatable. Yet, we believe Zhao deserves better justice, if not further compensation, in order to ensure that local officials and the judiciary in particular, seriously reflect on his unlawful incarceration. Otherwise, history may just repeat itself."

At the end of May, five Chinese law enforcement agencies―the Supreme People's Court, the Supreme People's Procuratorate, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, and the Ministry of Justice―jointly announced two new sets of guidelines on the use of illegally obtained evidence, according to a May 30 press release (available on the Ministry of Public Security Web site). A May 30 Xinhua article reported that the legal rules to clarify evidence would "stem miscarriages of justice" and referred directly to the Zhao Zuohai case. According to a May 31 New York Times article, legal experts have stated that the rules represent "the first time Chinese law has explicitly spelled out rules for the admissibility of prosecutorial evidence." The PRC Criminal Law (Article 247) and the PRC Criminal Procedure Law (Article 43) prohibit the use of torture to extort confessions―however, existing provisions do not explicitly address the exclusion of evidence obtained through torture or other illegal means. On June 25, China's Supreme People's Court, Supreme People's Procuratorate, Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of State Security, and Ministry of Justice formally published two sets of rules: "Rules Concerning Questions About Exclusion of Illegal Evidence in Handling Criminal Cases" and the "Rules Concerning Questions About Examining and Judging Evidence in Death Penalty Cases." (English translations of the rules are available on the Dui Hua Foundation Web site here.)

For more information about police torture and the fairness of criminal trials, see Section II―Human Rights: Criminal Justice in the CECC 2009 Annual Report.