Vigilante escapes charges over death of suspected thief

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2007, 12:00am

A vigilante in Wuhan , Hubei province, who was arrested over the death of a suspected pickpocket will not face prosecution due to lack of evidence.

Prosecutors in Wuhan's Qiaokou district decided not to file charges against Feng Weiyan, 27, who was cleared of responsibility in the death of Yang Man. They had sent the case to police twice.

Mr Feng, a bachelor's degree holder, joined a volunteer organisation in Wuhan whose members spend their spare time trying to catch petty thieves.

He was arrested in December, three months after he allegedly hit Yang on the head when Yang was trying to flee, resulting in a fatal brain haemorrhage.

Yang, rumoured to be a thief because he was a drug user, died 28 days after the alleged beating. Mr Feng insisted he had hit Yang only on the arm and leg and was not responsible for the death.

Mr Feng was released in July after spending almost eight months in detention.

His case has highlighted the controversy surrounding such volunteer law-enforcement groups, whose numbers have grown to more than 70 in recent years, and sparked a nationwide debate over the violent treatment of suspected thieves.

The volunteers have won the public's sympathy and been labelled heroes for trying to catch petty thieves at their own expense and in their spare time. But as cases of volunteers being detained for beating up thieves or carrying illegal weapons popped up across the country, lawyers advocated an end to the practice because the volunteers were not legal agents and by using violence they were likely to commit a crime.

Luo Mingjiang , an official with the Wuhan Public Security Bureau, said Mr Feng's case underscored the need for voluntary crime fighting to be conducted within a legal framework. Police appreciated the volunteers' 'righteousness', he said, but disapproved of the way they handled petty thieves.

'If volunteers took other measures, such as reporting to the police they might achieve a better effect in fighting the thieves,' Xinhua quoted Mr Luo as saying.

Lin Lei , head of a volunteer group set up to catch petty thieves in Xiamen in Fujian province, said Mr Feng's case had sent a warning signal.

His own group, with about 250 members responsible for catching more than 1,100 thieves in the past two years, has developed strict rules, similar to those used by police.

Group members would only act when thieves were caught in the act, and their job was just to send thieves to the police station, Mr Lin said.

Mr Lin said his group members had free insurance and legal counsel because the group was backed by police.

'If something happens to us, we will not be taken care of like a police officer, but the police have made sure we are covered with insurance and a lawyer,' Mr Lin said.

Only a few such groups were recognised by police, he said.