Death of thief in Wuhan raises questions about people taking law into their hands Hebei resident Feng Weiyan has been cut off from the outside world in a Wuhan jail since his arrest four months ago, but when his case does make it to court, it is expected to set off a nationwide debate about people taking the law into their own hands. Feng, 26, is the first vigilante on the mainland to be prosecuted over the death of a suspected pickpocket and, before his detention, was a member of a volunteer law and order group tackling petty thieves. He is accused of inflicting fatal injuries in September on a man identified only as Mr Yang, and the case has raised public concerns over the violence that vigilantes use against their targets. Vigilante teams targeting pickpockets have mushroomed in most mainland cities in the past two years as police have failed to rein in the small-scale crime. There are now about 70 similar groups across the mainland, said group leaders. The volunteers come from a cross-section of the community and usually make contact through online chat rooms. They catch thieves in their spare time and at their own expense, and despite their dubious legal status are widely regarded as heroes. Some groups said Feng's case could encourage many vigilante teams to reconsider their roles as modern-day knights and usher in official limits on their use of force. Feng was arrested on December 27, two months after Yang died from head injuries. Police maintain that Feng hit Yang on the head, resulting in a fatal brain haemorrhage, but fellow vigilantes say Feng only hit Yang on the leg and arm. Feng's lawyer, Wang Wanxiong, said his client would probably be tried in several weeks, and if so, the case would be the first of its kind on the mainland. Feng was a member of the Wuhan group, whose leader, dubbed 'Scalpel', said all activities had been suspended since his arrest. He insisted Feng had been framed and the group is doing all it can to prove his innocence. Members of vigilante groups are normally only known by their nicknames to protect their identities and prevent retaliatory attacks on their families. Scalpel said Feng and other group members caught Yang stealing a mobile phone on a bus in Wuhan's Qingnian Road on September 24. Yang tried to flee with several others but fell over and knocked himself out when he tried to jump over a roadside flower bed. Scalpel said Feng hit Yang several times on the leg and arm with a stick before police arrived. Yang died 28 days later, and a coroner said the cause of death was an injury on the head. Police arrested Feng after Yang's friends said they saw Feng hit Yang on the head. Scalpel said that if Feng was found guilty, it would discourage his team and many of their counterparts from tackling pickpockets in the future. Although Feng's case is likely to be the first to make it to court, police in other mainland cities have also investigated vigilantes over the beating of thieves and use of illegal weapons. In Shenzhen, two vigilantes were detained for 10 days earlier this month by Futian district police after they were found carrying police batons. And in Nanjing , in Jiangsu province , a vigilante group member was arrested in late March for beating a suspected thief on the head with an iron bar during a fight with pickpockets. Similar attacks against thieves have been reported in Ningbo , Zhejiang province , and in Foshan , Guangdong, but no prosecutions have resulted. The Wuhan case is the most serious and has prompted many mainland lawyers to call on vigilantes not to use violence to handle thieves. 'Thieves are very hateful, but that doesn't mean vigilantes, as general citizens, are allowed to beat them,' Nanjing lawyer Jia Zhenghe said. 'You should abide by the law even when you are doing good deeds.' Mr Jia has also called on police to regulate and guide these groups, which is starting to happen. In Hainan , Haikou police last week officially recognised a city vigilante group of 100 members and said they would 'direct' the group in helping officers catch thieves. Vigilante teams in several cities said that even though the Wuhan case had not been resolved, it had the power to send a warning to these groups against taking the law into their own hands. A Guangzhou group leader named 'Truck' said many vigilante groups on the mainland consider themselves more powerful than police and could easily abuse that power. 'Vigilantes usually consider themselves to be public heroes who give lessons to thieves on behalf of the public,' Truck said. 'It is very important to work with local police rather than to consider yourself as an independent force.' Another leader of the team said the Wuhan case underlined the need to introduce checks on violence. 'Many people join vigilante teams because of indignation at being robbed, and these people could easily resort to violence after seizing thieves,' he said. 'So the first and most important step is to recruit the right people.' He said his team usually recruits people aged over 30 who are more rational and calm, and each new member usually spent two to three months under group observation before being allowed to trail pickpockets. The leader of a group in Ningbo said vengeance can undermine a group's efforts. 'One group failed because they had some people motivated by revenge,' said the leader, 'NB'. 'Some people joined the team because they had been robbed and hated thieves. They confused tackling pickpockets with venting anger.'