When a county-level prosecutor in central China took credit for mediating a rape case involving two minors, it probably didn’t expect to find itself in the eye of public opinion storm soon afterward.
In an article published on social app WeChat last Wednesday, the public prosecutor of Lushan County, Henan province, said it had received a pennant of gratitude from the mother of a 16-year-old boy who was accused of raping a 17-year-old girl. The boy was arrested in July but released on bail pending trial in September after the two families reached a reconciliation agreement mediated by the prosecutor.
“Under the advice of the prosecutor, the parents buried the hatchet,” read the article, which enumerated the prosecutor’s efforts to negotiate with the parents. It added that the suspect’s family had paid the victim’s family 80,000 yuan ($11,600) in compensation.
A screenshot of a now-deleted Weibo post from the Lushan County procuratorate shows staff holding a pennant of gratitude from the parents of a 16-year-old rape suspect after a successful mediation with the alleged victim and her family, posted Sept. 19, 2018. From @鲁山县检察院 on Weibo
With its self-aggrandizing tone, the article quickly drew backlash from the public, who questioned how a rape case involving minors could be so neatly resolved with money. On Tuesday, the provincial prosecutor told The Beijing News that the bail did not mean the closing of the case, which is still under review. “The angle of the publicity article was not well-handled,” a press officer from Henan’s procuratorate told the paper. “It had many details that could easily be misconstrued.” The officer blamed poor word choice for the unanticipated controversy. The article could no longer be found on the Lushan prosecutor’s WeChat account on Tuesday afternoon.
“The author of the article might have been affected by some policies, because Chinese law emphasizes the protection of juveniles in criminal cases,” Yuan Zhi, a lawyer at W&H Law Firm in southwestern Sichuan province, told Sixth Tone. “But the article exaggerated the effect of this protection and failed to consider the potential reaction from the public.”
Because the article provided little information about the alleged crime, Yuan explained, it’s hard to judge the suitability of a reconciliation agreement. Introduced into China’s Criminal Procedure Law in 2012, criminal reconciliation allows for the alleged perpetrators of certain crimes to gain the forgiveness of the alleged victims through reconciliation or mediation. An accord may also result in the suspects being shown leniency if and when they are charged.
“There was concern over ‘money for leniency’ when the [reconciliation] procedure was first introduced,” Yuan said. “The article may cause teenagers to think that making mistakes is permissible as long as they apologize. But the fact is, crimes must be punished — it’s just a matter of how severely.” According to China’s Criminal Law, rape is punishable by prison sentences ranging from three years to life, or by the death penalty in particularly egregious cases. The law also provides for leniency toward criminals aged over 14 but under 18, though it does not specify how this leniency should manifest.
The office of Henan’s procuratorate had not responded to Sixth Tone’s interview request by time of publication.
Legal experts have weighed in on another problematic aspect of the case: an apparent misunderstanding of how bail works. “The purpose of detention is to ensure that the legal process goes smoothly. As such, in the absence of any extenuating circumstances, most suspects will be granted bail,” Yuan said — regardless of a successful mediation.
Deng Xueping, a criminal lawyer in Shanghai, was more critical of how the Lushan prosecutor handled the suspect’s bail. “The procedure for releasing on bail pending trial does not violate the law, but there should be an investigation to determine whether there was any illegal action in granting the bail,” Deng told Sixth Tone. “In most places, it’s uncommon for suspects in rape cases to be released on bail.”
In the current context of more and more authorities reporting about legal cases through their own social media accounts, Deng said, controversies like this will be inevitable as long as publicity staff lack sensitivity for public opinion and don’t pay enough attention to how their words might be interpreted.
Yuan, the other lawyer, put it more bluntly: “This case was not suitable as a publicity story.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Wang Yixuan/VCG)