2017-01-25 13:10:13

For the families of five men who were imprisoned for murder in eastern China’s Anhui province, the upcoming lunar new year will bring the chance to end their 16-year struggle to redress what they claim to be wrongful convictions.

On Monday, the families of Zhou Jikun, Zhou Jiahua, Zhou Zaichun, Zhou Zhengguo, and Zhou Zaihua — none of whom are related — received retrial notices from the High People’s Court of Anhui. The notices stated that legal proceedings would be reopened to review the cases of all five men, who hail from the village of Dazhouzhuang in Woyang County.

“My parents stayed up all night and had a few drinks,” Zhou Jiwei, the younger brother of Zhou Jikun, told Sixth Tone on Tuesday. “They were too happy to sleep.”

The convicted men’s families have been holding out hope for a retrial for more than 16 years. In October 2000, the High People’s Court of Anhui ruled that in August 1996, the five Zhous broke into the home of fellow villager Zhou Jiding — also no relation to the others. The court said that they then attacked his family, killing one of Zhou Jiding’s daughters, severely injuring Zhou Jiding, his wife, and another daughter, and leaving his son with minor injuries, according to a report published in July 2014 by The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication.

The rulings in 2000 convicted each man of murder, with sentences ranging from 15 years in prison to suspended death sentences for two of the men. Of the five, four have already been released from prison. Zhou Jikun, the only one still serving jail time, is scheduled to be released in October of this year. Both suspended death sentences were commuted to prison terms after two years.

The final appeal rulings came despite the five men and their families proclaiming their innocence and accusing the police of having obtained confessions from them by torture. The court rejected these accusations, citing documents provided by the police, prosecutors, and other officers handling the case.

Still, judges handling the case disagreed about the rulings at various stages before the 2000 ruling, according to Wu Jicheng, the judge who presided over the first trial of the case at the Fuyang Intermediate People’s Court in 1998.

That court’s judicial committee — a body responsible for reviewing judgments — discussed the case after the first trial on Oct. 15, 1998. “The committee members agreed unanimously that they were innocent,” Wu said, referring to the five Zhous. All seven members of the judicial committee taking part in the discussion signed an internal document asserting the innocence of the men, reported the Paper, citing anonymous sources.

The following day, Zhou Jiding, the man whose family had been attacked, drank a bottle of pesticide at Wu’s office after Wu would not tell him whether the five suspects would be convicted or found innocent. He died three days later, prompting the intermediate court’s judicial committee to further deliberate each man’s case. “[Then] the rulings started to change,” Wu said.

In March 1999, the intermediate court sentenced Zhou Jikun and Zhou Jiahua to death, while Zhou Zaichun received a life sentence. Zhou Zhengguo and Zhou Zaihua were both sentenced to 15 years. All five were convicted of murder.

However, in July of the same year, the High People’s Court of Anhui canceled the ruling and ordered a retrial at the Fuyang Intermediate People’s Court after the five men appealed, citing lack of evidence and contradictory statements from witnesses.

Finally, in February 2000, the Fuyang court once again found the five guilty of murder, giving Zhou Jikun and Zhou Jiahua suspended death sentences, Zhou Zaichun a life sentence, and Zhou Zhengguo and Zhou Zaihua to 15 years’ imprisonment respectively.

However, opinions were divided over the Fuyang court’s decisions, with some judges maintaining that the five should be pronounced innocent. In addition, all of the judges involved in the decision were aware of two critical issues: the lack of crucial evidence — including murder weapons, which allegedly included a kitchen knife — and the withdrawal of some witness testimonies.

The five Zhous appealed again, but in October 2000, the High People’s Court of Anhui upheld the rulings of the Fuyang court. Not until The Paper reported on the case in July 2014 did the court move to review the final rulings. The retrial decision was made in October 2016, with the provincial high court citing a legal article stipulating that criminal cases should be retried if the evidence used for conviction and sentencing is insufficient or contradictory, and that such evidence should be excluded from judicial consideration.

Even though the retrial decision had been made a few months ago, the convicted men and their families were only informed on Monday. “The four [released men] and the wife of Zhou Jikun were summoned to the home of a village official,” Zhou Jiwei said. “Then an official from the court gave them the letters and wished them a happy new year.”

Zhou Jiwei said that the court official declined to tell him how long the retrial might take, or what the court’s final decision might be. But prospect of exoneration is enough to help him breathe a little easier. “The court has decided to retry the cases at last,” he said. “We’ve seen hope.”

(Header image: From left to right, Zhou Jikun’s wife, Zhou Jiahua, Zhou Zaihua, Zhou Zhengguo, and Zhou Zaichun stand in front of the High People’s Court in Hefei, Anhui province, Nov. 4, 2016. Shao Ke/Sixth Tone)