A county government in Hunan province admitted it asked an administrating city government to grant bail for a local businessman detained for allegedly trafficking ivory because they didn’t want his companies to collapse.
But Shuangfeng county insisted its actions were in accordance with the law, and the Loudi city official who approved the bail denied interfering with the judicial process.
Li Dingsheng, a successful businessman in Shuangfeng, was arrested in early December 2012 by police from Loudi, the city that administers the county. They had received a tip-off Li had bought a total of 25 pieces of ivory in three transactions from a dealer that summer. His case was soon transferred to the county police bureau, and Li was later released on bail.
The affair resurfaced this week when a claim was made in a chat room that Li’s release came after Shuangfeng officials wrote the letter to counterparts in Loudi. Mainland media pursued the claim and China News Service on Thursday reported the letter said Li deserved leniency in the interests of “maintaining social stability”.
Li had health issues and was eligible for release on medical grounds, the county government said, according to the agency. It cited a statement from the county government saying the bail was “legal”.
Wang Xiong, the secretary general of the city’s Communist Party committee, has admitted he approved the request. The China Youth Daily quoted him as saying: “we absolutely did not intend to intervene with judiciary procedures.”
Li was president of several businesses in Shuangfeng county, including one designated by officials as a “key company”, the letter from Shuangfeng said, according to the Daily.
“If Li is detained for a long period, it will inevitably impact this project’s normal production, and hence the whole county” the letter said. Li’s companies had also borrowed money from local firms, so “if the situation is allowed to continue, it’s very likely to trigger major social instability”.
Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based political commentator, said it was common for local officials to lean on the judiciary in cases involving entrepreneurs or heads of large companies to avoid disrupting economic development.
“Many would be lenient to major companies because they are linked with the local economy,” he said, “They’re actually pursuing the interests of the government, sometime even their own interests, by using the excuse of maintaining social stability.”
The Shuangfeng court “heard the case publicly” on Friday last week, the county government said. Prosecutors brought an indictment in January and the court ordered Li released under residential surveillance given his health problems, the county government said.
Li trafficked a total of 172 kilograms of ivory, China Youth Daily reported. He was charged with “illegal operation” instead of the usual “illegal purchase, transport and sales of precious endangered wildlife and products made from it”, the report said.
Under mainland law, the latter crime carries a minimum of five years in jail, while the punishment for the former no more than five years. No trial has been announced, and it is not clear when a date will be decided.