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Human rights in China

Chinese court clears man jailed 15 years over spate of attacks on women in Xinjiang

Zhou Yuan, 47, was initially sentenced to death for the crimes

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 8:49pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 November, 2017, 10:44pm

Xinjiang’s top court has exonerated a man who was wrongfully convicted of a series of sexual assaults and attacks on women dating back to the early 1990s, for which he spent 15 years in jail after he was initially sentenced to death.

Zhou Yuan, 47, was on Thursday cleared of two counts of coercive indecent assault by the Higher People’s Court of Xinjiang, which said the facts of the case were unclear and the evidence insufficient, news outlet Thepaper.cn reported.

The case has been met with outrage in China, with comparisons made on social media to Nie Shubin, a 20-year-old farmer who was executed by firing squad over the rape and murder of a woman in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province in 1995. His conviction was overturned by the supreme court last year, a decade after another man confessed to the crime.

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It was Zhou’s second retrial after he was initially given the death penalty, followed by a life sentence, then had his jail term reduced to 15 years, the report said.

“Although Zhou Yuan initially pleaded guilty, there was no evidence to link him to these cases,” Wang Xing, Zhou’s lawyer, was quoted as saying on Thursday.

“His life has been completely destroyed,” Wang said, adding that Zhou would apply for compensation.

The case involved a spate of sexual assaults and violent attacks on dozens of women in the city of Yining that began in 1991. Some of the women reported being attacked with scissors and assaulted while they slept in their homes and dormitories.

Zhou was 27 when he was arrested in 1997 and pleaded guilty to committing 38 assaults and making threats against women, according to the report.

He was sentenced to death in 1998, with a two-year stay of execution.

But another man, Huo Yong, confessed to some of the crimes in 1998, providing details that matched many of the cases. Huo admitted to 34 counts of burglary and sexual assault and was later put to death, according to a report in local newspaper Ili Evening News.

No sign of change in China’s deeply flawed criminal justice system

Huo’s case gave hope to Zhou’s mother Li Bizhen, who pushed for an appeal for her son. Zhou’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1999 for seven of the assaults by an intermediate court in Yining.

An appeal of that verdict the following year saw the number of assaults for which Zhou was convicted reduced to five but his sentence remained the same.

Eleven years later, at a retrial at Xinjiang’s high court, Zhou’s sentence was reduced to 15 years for two counts of assault because of insufficient evidence. He was released from jail in 2012.

After his release, Zhou told local media he had been tortured by police into making a confession.

Zhou and his mother continued their battle to clear his name, resulting in the national supreme court last year overturning the 2011 verdict and ordering that the case again be retried at the Xinjiang high court.