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2018-04-12 12:01:22

Five men convicted of murdering an 18-year-old woman in eastern China and assaulting four of her family members two decades ago were proclaimed innocent by the Anhui High People’s Court on Wednesday. Since the first trial, the men — all surnamed Zhou — have claimed police tortured them until they confessed.

“This not-guilty ruling comes 21 years too late,” Liu Jingjie, one of the lawyers involved in the case, told Sixth Tone. “The wrongful conviction deeply hurts not only the [litigants’] families, but also the credibility of China’s judicial organs and the country as a whole.”

One evening in August 1996, Zhou Suhua was killed in her family’s home in Guoyang County, Anhui province. Her father, mother, sister, and brother were injured by the assailants. Five men — Zhou Jikun, Zhou Jiahua, Zhou Zaichun, Zhou Zhengguo, and Zhou Zaihua — were apprehended by police and later prosecuted. None of the defendants are related: In their village in Anhui, nearly everyone, including the victim and her family, has the surname “Zhou.”

Twenty-one years later, after a series of appeals, the province’s high court has overturned the initial guilty verdict, citing insufficient evidence and “unreliable” confessions and witness testimony.

Upon hearing the court’s ruling, the five Zhous burst into tears, according to The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication. But the exonerated men are hoping for more than their freedom, Liu said: They also want the officers who tortured both them and the witnesses to be held to account.

“There’s considerable evidence showing that they were tortured into confessing, but the court’s decision acknowledges no such problem,” Liu explained. Indeed, a lower court ruled in 2002 that the Zhous had not been tortured or otherwise coerced into confessing.

When the case first came to trial in October 1998, a neighbor who testified that he had seen five men brandishing knives and axes walk toward the victim’s home said police had beaten him before he took the stand. In fact, 18 of the 19 witnesses told the court they had been tortured.

The only witness who did not change or recant her testimony was the victim’s 9-year-old sister. She initially said she saw Zhou Jikun and Zhou Jiahua come into her home holding weapons — but according to The Beijing News, she was unable to identify Zhou Jikun in court. Moreover, a lawyer for the defense said that the girl later admitted her father had told her what to say before she testified in court.

The five Zhous, too, have adamantly maintained their innocence, saying their confessions were extracted through torture: As evidence, they showed scars and other wounds all over their bodies.

With mounting evidence pointing to the defendants’ innocence, the victim’s father, Zhou Jiding, presented himself at the office of the judge presiding over the case after the trial but before a verdict was announced. There, in front of the judge, the man consumed a bottle of pesticide. According to The Paper, his suicide is widely believed to have pressured the court to find the Zhous guilty — which it did, the following year.

Zhou Jikun and Zhou Jiahua were sentenced to death, Zhou Zaichun got life in prison, and Zhou Zhengguo and Zhou Zaihua received 15 years each. But the defendants and their families filed appeal after appeal, and in 2000, a higher court revised the initial verdict, and Zhou Jikun and Zhou Jiahua had their death sentences suspended. The other men’s sentences were not reduced.

In 2014, the Anhui High People’s Court announced that it would review the case, which by then was being called the “Five Zhous Murder Case.” The lawyer, Liu, credits The Paper’s reporting — specifically, an article published the day before the court’s announcement — for drawing attention to his clients’ cause.

But the high court did not reopen the case until August 2017, three years later. Neither the Zhous nor their lawyers were given an explanation for why this process took so long.

In recent years, China’s courts have overturned an increasing number of verdicts, exonerating the wrongfully convicted in an effort to improve the reputation of the country’s legal system. Liu points out, however, that regardless of reversed decisions, no court has ever acknowledged the possibility of confessions being made under duress.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Zhou Zaichun cries out as he holds the court judgement exonerating him of a decades-old murder, Hefei, Anhui province, April 11, 2018. Xue Ke for Sixth Tone)