China court clears man 21 years after his execution

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China's supreme court ruled Friday that a young man executed 21 years ago for rape and murder had been innocent, in a case that has drawn attention to problems in the legal system as well as the frequent application of the death penalty.

Nie Shubin was 20 at the time of his 1995 execution for crimes he was accused of committing in the northern city of Shijiazhuang in August of 1994. Another man, Wang Shujin, confessed to the crimes in 2005 while in police custody, although a legal review of the case did not get underway until 2014.

In its ruling, the court cited numerous examples of negligence and procedural errors by police and prosecutors, including the fact that Nie was singled out as a suspect "without a shred of evidence." It also said it couldn't rule out that Nie's testimony was coerced by torture or other means, a frequent accusation against the legal system that relies heavily on confessions to gain convictions.

China ordered speeded-up trials and executions during anti-crime campaigns in the 1990s, leading to frequent cutting of corners by legal authorities. Two years ago, another court ruled that 18-year-old Huugjilt, an ethnic Mongolian who was executed in 1996 for rape and murder, also was innocent after another man confessed to the crime. The court awarded Huugjilt's parents compensation.

However, under reforms in recent years, all death penalties are now automatically reviewed by the supreme court and the justices say executions are carried out only for the most heinous crimes. The exact number of people put to death is a state secret, but rights groups say China remains the world's top executioner.

Chinese legal scholar Xu Xin, a prominent advocate of legal reforms to reduce wrongful convictions, said Nie's case has emerged as highly representative of the country's problems with miscarriages of justice.

"In China's legal and social spheres, this case has garnered the greatest concern and has the most influence. Everyone's views on this case have basically been the same — that there was grave injustice," Xu said.

But the fact that it took this long for him to be exonerated shows the challenges ordinary people face in gaining legal redress in China, he said. "A vindication like this implies that compensation would have to be made, and someone could potentially be held responsible for the mistake, so that makes authorities unwilling to make an active push to correct the injustice," he said.

He credited the Chinese media, concerned defense lawyers and others who drew attention to the case for the court's overturning of the verdict, but said that the problem at the heart of the issue remained China's lack of an independent judiciary.

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