A clear definition of domestic violence is needed to curb the crime

Two recent marital violence cases have spurred lawyers and women's rights groups to demand a law change - and save one woman's life

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 February, 2013, 3:54am

A law setting out a clear definition of domestic violence and its punishment is urgently needed on the mainland, as two cases remind us this month.

The first is the tragic story of Sichuan woman Li Yan, 42, who killed her drunken husband after more than a year of abuse, which included kicks and beating, burning of her face and legs with cigarette ends, starving her, locking her out on the balcony during winter, and dragging her down three flights of stairs by her hair.

On November 3, 2010, after an argument, Tan kicked Li and threatened to shoot her buttocks with an air rifle. She grabbed the rifle and struck Tan with it, killing him. Li then dismembered his body and threw the parts away.

The Ziyang Intermediate People's Court convicted Li of intentional homicide and sentenced her to immediate execution. An appeal court upheld the conviction in August last year, and in recent weeks there have been reports that the Supreme People's Court has approved the death sentence. However, Li's brother said the family had not heard anything from the courts as of yesterday.

More than 400 lawyers and women's rights activists from around the country signed a petition late last month asking the Supreme People's Court to overturn the death sentence. And last weekend, a group of female university students did some daring "flash" protests outside courts in eight cities. .

Meanwhile, another 12,000 people have signed a petition urging the National People's Congress (NPC) to speed up legislating on domestic abuse.

Recent official figures show that about a third of mainland households experience domestic violence, while one in four women have suffered some form of domestic abuse. However, due to the traditional view that what happens in a household remains private, very few women reported their abuse.

Kim Lee decided to break this cycle of silence in September 2011 when she posted photos of her bruised face on a microblog, bringing unprecedented attention to topic of domestic violence.

She is the American wife of celebrity entrepreneur Li Yang , founder of the English-learning education empire Crazy English.

On Sunday, the Chaoyang District People's Court in Beijing ruled in favour of Lee in the marathon divorce lawsuit, allowing the divorce on the basis of domestic violence, ordering Li to pay his wife 50,000 yuan (HK$62,000) in compensation for mental anguish as well as 12 million yuan for support to Lee and their three daughters. Lee's victory is a big step in the mainland's fight against domestic violence. Li Yang once tried to argue that only sustained violence, and not occasional beating, could be deemed domestic violence

However, Li Yan's case shows that the road is still long.

In the months before the killing, she had sought help from police, the neighbourhood Communist Party committee and the government-backed All China Women's Federation, but none acted on her pleas.

In a convoluted argument, the court dismissed police records, hospital records, witness testimony, pictures of her injuries and complaints to the women's federation as insufficient evidence of domestic abuse, on the basis that witnesses were friends and family of Li, and that none of the authorities that Li reported to carried out an investigation.

Apart from cultural bias, rights activists have identified the lack of a clear legal definition of domestic violence as the main cause of its unchecked growth. The women's federation urged the NPC for four years to enact a law on domestic violence, and it finally included the law in its drafting agenda in 2011. However, no drafts have been tabled.

Meanwhile, a Supreme People's Court study last month confirmed the activists' position that the lack of a clear standard for the initiation of investigations and prosecutions in cases of domestic violence was one reason why such investigations were rare.

While all these steps are welcome, Li Yan's case shows there must be no further delay in the overhaul of the justice system to deal with domestic violence - most notably the need for legislation clearly criminalising the act.

Of utmost urgency right now is that she not be executed and that her case be reviewed. Otherwise it will send the worst possible signal to abusers.

Ng Tze-wei is a former South China Morning Post reporter