Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Politics Still Reign in China's Communist Courts

ANYANG, China -- For three days and three nights, the police wrenched Qin Yanhong's arms high above his back, jammed his knees into a sharp metal frame, and kicked his gut whenever he fell asleep. The pain was so intense that he watched sweat pour off his face and form puddles on the floor.

On the fourth day, he broke down. "What color were her pants?" they demanded. "Black," he gasped, and felt a whack on the back of his head. "Red," he cried, and got another punch. "Blue," he ventured. The beating stopped.

This is how Qin, a 35-year-old steel mill worker in Henan Province in central China, recalled groping in the darkness of a interrogation room to deduce the "correct" details of a rape and murder, end his torture and give the police the confession they required to close a nettlesome case.

Justice in China is swift but not sure. Criminal investigations nearly always end in guilty pleas. Prosecutors almost never lose cases brought to trial. But recent disclosures of wrongful convictions like Qin's have exposed deep flaws in a judicial system that often answers more to political leaders than the law.

The viability of China's Communist Party depends more than ever on its ability to create a credible legal system. The party needs the law to check corruption, which has eroded its legitimacy. The authorities want people to turn to the courts, rather than take to the streets, to resolve social discontents that have made the country its most volatile since the 1989 democracy movement.

The law, in other words, has become a front line in China's struggle to modernize under one-party rule. Yet Qin's persecution and similar miscarriages of justice that have come to light this year suggest that China is struggling with a fundamental question of jurisprudence: Do officials serve the law, or do laws serve the officials? Or, to put it another way, is the Communist Party creating rule of law or rule by law?

Qin, his family members and several people involved in his defense said the case showed how political motives and collusion among police, prosecutors and the courts could make the law a source of terror for people who lack the power or money to defend themselves.

Just after noon on Aug. 3, 1998, Jia Hairong, a 30-year-old peasant, was found murdered on her family's farm in the village of Donggaoping. She was raped and strangled, her body stashed behind tall cornstalks.

Instead of forensic evidence, the police relied on the accounts of three children who were playing outdoors in Qinxiaotun, a village about a mile east of Donggaoping, the records show. The children recalled seeing Qin, who lives in Qinxiaotun, walking from the direction of Donggaoping that afternoon.

He was handcuffed and shackled. He had no idea what he was suspected of doing. But he overheard officers and drivers discussing a murder. He wondered if his detention was connected.

A senior detective named Shen Jun took charge of his interrogation, court documents show. The detective said he was investigating the theft of an alarm clock. He said Qin's fingerprints matched those found on the clock.

The questioning quickly turned to torture. Qin said he was made to sit for many hours on the open metal frame of a chair without a back. His feet and arms were strapped to the chair legs and his body slumped through the frame, forcing the backs of his knees and his lower back against the sharp edges, a technique is known as "tiger stool."

Finally, pressed to specify the color of the stolen alarm clock, he made a guess: "White." An officer whacked his head and asked again, "What color was the clock?" After a few tries, he said: "Green." The beating stopped.

Six months later, a judge visited Qin in prison and delivered the verdict: Qin was guilty of rape and murder, and would be executed.

In January 2001, a retired soldier named Yuan Qiufu walked into a police station in Linzhou, a town not far from Anyang, and told the officer on duty that he had raped, robbed and strangled 18 women. He included an unerring account of the rape and murder of Jia and the theft of a green alarm clock.

Afraid of demotion, the officials' response was to suppress the new information -- and keep Qin on death row.

The agreement held for more than a year. It came to light only after an official in Linzhou joked about the matter to a reporter for a national legal affairs publication. Although the reporter did not publish an article on the subject, he did alert authorities in the capital, who ordered an inquiry.

In May 2002, a provincial-level legal investigation determined that Qin should be released. He was given a suite at a hotel. The Anyang County police organized a banquet.

Although he has a notice from the police confirming that he was arrested in error, the notice attributes the arrest to a "work mistake." Qin has never been declared innocent of murder.

"They hope they can just make this disappear with no hard feelings and no problems for anyone involved," he said.

The last time Qin visited the police to press for a full restitution, he discovered that Shen had been promoted. He is no longer a detective team leader, but Anyang County's deputy chief of police.