A matter of life and death ... and justice
It is almost two years since a Shanxi teenager, Zhang Xuping, was sentenced to death for killing the much-feared and much-hated party chief of Xiashuixi village, Li Shiming.
With Zhang, now 21, just one legal step away from execution - the Supreme People's Court is reviewing his death sentence - Zhang's family and criminal law experts are appealing for the young man's life to be spared in light of the unusual circumstances leading to the killing and the mainland's new policy of reducing the use of capital punishment.
Zhang was hailed a hero by villagers because Li had run the village like a gang boss for more than a decade, lining his own pockets with the proceeds of illegal land grabs and beating and throwing in jail those who opposed him.
More than 1,000 villagers tried to enter the courtroom to show support for Zhang at his trial in Luliang in August 2009 and more than 20,000 have signed a petition pleading for his life.
An appeal was thrown out by the Shanxi Higher People's Court in July.
'If it is our belief now that we only execute someone if allowing that person to live would incite public anger, then, in this case, there's no reason to execute my son - the public supported him,' said Zhang's 50-year-old mother, Wang Houe, heartbroken and exhausted but not ready to give up. 'Executing him would be against the spirit of our law.'
In addition to the public support, the defence lawyer hired by Zhang's family, Li Yongjian, said the evidence showed Zhang was at most an accomplice and that even though he had confessed to stabbing Li Shiming, there was no eyewitness testimony, and physical evidence linking the stabbing to the death was flimsy. For example, the wound was of a different size to Zhang's dagger blade, suggesting the possibility of another attacker.
It is not possible to understand Zhang's actions without considering the plight of his mother, beginning in 2000, when Li Shiming, already a powerful village official, began snatching land in the name of development and paying only meagre compensation to villagers. He used local thugs to beat those who objected into submission and corrupt police to illegally arrest those who continued to resist.
Villagers estimate that Li Shiming seized more than 30 hectares of land between 2000 and 2008, and one report by the China Youth Daily in December 2009 cited interviews with more than 20 villagers who had been intimidated and beaten by Li Shiming or his goons.
In 2002, Wang and two dozen other villagers prepared themselves for a trip to Taiyuan to petition the provincial government over the party chief's illegal logging of 24,000 trees in the village.
But the villagers were intercepted before they left Lishi district, and Wang, held by Li Shiming as leader of the renegade group, was jailed for a year for blackmail.
In jail Wang was beaten by warders every few days and even put in shackles for a week.
That was all tolerable to her compared to what happened next, however. The day Wang was released from jail, Zhang, then only 13, was brought home in the car of one of Li Shiming's brothers, who told the family that he had been expelled from school for bad behaviour.
At the time Zhang was not big on studying, his elder brother recalled, but he liked going to school and was popular with friends.
After his expulsion he worked as a waiter in a restaurant for two years and then became a lookout for petty criminals.
In 2005, Zhang was arrested for three robberies involving a total of 6,800 yuan (HK$8,295) and jailed for a year, even though he was only a juvenile at the time. When he got out, he seemed to his brother like a different person.
'He used to be outgoing, slightly mischievous; but now he was quiet,' his brother said. They later learned that Zhang had tried to commit suicide in jail because he could not take the endless beatings, but no one had informed the family at the time. 'I rarely saw him smile again.'
Zhang asked to return to school and the family found a private technical college in Luliang city , out of Li Shiming's reach, where he could study telecommunications, and he seemed to enjoy it. His classmates also liked him, even electing him class president.
Meanwhile, Wang continued to report on Li Shiming's illegal actions to higher levels of government and the party chief continued to make the family's life miserable.
He sent thugs to wreck Wang's fruit stall business and refused the family's application to buy new flats made available by the government at reduced prices to those who had lost their farmland. He even arranged for bicycles owned by Zhang's younger sister to be stolen, time and again.
But his reign of terror ended on September 23, 2008.
According to court documents, Zhang Xuping met a 34-year-old fellow villager, Zhang Huping, in June in the village park and the older man, also a victim of Li Shiming's bullying, asked him if he dared to kill the chief. Zhang Xuping said yes.
Zhang Huping then provided Zhang Xuping with money to purchase knives, mobile phones and get-away clothes, and also a car to stalk the party chief, so he could wait for the right moment to kill him. On September 23, Zhang Xuping, who had turned 18 earlier that year, received a call from Zhang Huping saying that he had spotted Li Shiming walking alone into a local school.
Zhang Xuping rushed to the scene, plunged a knife into Li Shiming's left chest, pulled it out and fled.
The party chief died in his car on the way to hospital.
Both Zhangs were arrested for murder, but Zhang Xuping was sentenced to death while Zhang Huping, who at the time was on parole from a previous assault charge, was given a suspended death sentence.
The main defence mounted by Li Yongjian, the lawyer hired by Zhang Xuping's family, was that while the young man had carried out the stabbing, he was not the instigator of the crime, and should not receive a heavier penalty than Zhang Huping.
Another co-defendant, Li Yanxin, testified that Zhang Huping had first approached him to kill the party chief, asking him to use a car to knock Li Shiming over, and only gave the car to Zhang Xuping when he decided to drop out. That detail was not considered relevant during the trial.
More importantly, the lawyer argued, Li Shiming should bear partial liability for his death due to his years of aggression towards Wang and other families in Xiashuixi. The fault of the victim is not a formal mitigating factor stipulated in mainland law, but is, in practice, a commonly considered mitigating factor.
However, the Shanxi courts dismissed this argument altogether in Zhang Xuping's case, saying there was no proof of a direct link between what his family had suffered and his killing of the village chief.
There were other mitigating factors that should also have been considered: Zhang Xuping's age, his relatively clean record, his frank admission of the crime and his sincere regret, as evidenced by his seeking forgiveness from the victim's family in court and offering compensation. But they were ignored by the two courts.
Veteran criminal lawyers say Li Shiming's tyrannical deeds should be taken into account on two levels.
'In cases, for example, where a wife finally murdered her husband due to prolonged domestic abuse, the defendants are often given a suspended death sentence or even life or time sentences,' Beijing lawyer Li Xiaolin said.
From a broader perspective, the widespread anger of the villagers in this case reflects an alarming problem for authorities, who constantly stress social harmony.
'After all these years I really don't know what to say ... except that the Chinese judicial system is too corrupt,' Zhang Xuping's brother said. Now 26, he has quit his job and any thoughts of setting up his own family to dedicate himself to petitioning for his brother.
'But I still have faith in the Supreme People's Court. I believe in Beijing: they consider things differently than our local courts. We hope they will listen to us, the villagers, the people.'