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China: Commute Death Sentence in Domestic Violence Case

Case Illustrates Urgent Need for Anti-Domestic Violence Legislation

(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately commute the death sentence against Li Yan, a woman convicted of killing her husband following months of violent abuse. According to Chinese criminal procedure, Li could be executed in the coming days, following approval by China’s Supreme People’s Court.

Human Rights Watch urged the Chinese authorities to follow the practice in other countries to take into account previous acts of violence against survivors of domestic violence as a defense or as a mitigating factor in sentencing. The lack of a comprehensive law against domestic violence to prevent, investigate, and provide service to survivors compounds abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

“It is cruel and perverse for the government to impose the death penalty on Li Yan when it took no action to investigate her husband’s abuse or to protect her from it,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “China’s legal system needs to take account of the circumstances that can lead domestic violence survivors to resort to violence in self-defense.”

In November 2010, Li Yan, from Sichuan Province, killed her husband Tan Yong following a violent dispute. According to Li’s lawyer, Tan had kicked Li and threatened to shoot her with an air rifle when Li grabbed the rifle and struck Tan with it, killing him. Li then dismembered Tan’s body.

Li and Tan had married in March 2009 and Tan started to abuse her soon after. According to Li’s lawyers and her brother, Tan had abused Li in the months prior to the murder: he had kicked and beaten her, locked her in their home during the day without food or drink, locked her out overnight on the balcony including during winter, burned her face and legs with cigarette butts, and once dragged her down three flights of stairs by her hair. Li had repeatedly complained about Tan’s abuses to the police, to the neighborhood committee, and to the local branch of the government-organized All China Women’s Federation (ACWF) as early as August 2010. Evidence of that abuse, including police records, hospital records, witness testimony, pictures of her injuries, and complaints to the ACWF, were presented in court. Neither the police nor the ACWF investigated the allegations against Tan. According to Li’s brother, the police had told Li that this was a “family matter” and that she should seek help from the local neighborhood committee.

However, the Ziyang City Intermediate People’s Court ruled that the evidence was insufficient to confirm that Li suffered domestic violence. Because all the witness statements affirming Li’s injuries had come from her friends and family, and because the authorities to whom Li had reported the abuse had taken no action to investigate and confirm Tan was the source of the abuse, the court ruled that it was not clear that domestic violence had taken place. The court convicted her of “intentional homicide” and stated that the death penalty is warranted because “the murder was committed in a cruel fashion and that the consequences severe.”

An appeals court upheld this decision in August 2012. Li’s case was then transferred to the Supreme People’s Court, which reportedly approved the execution recently but has not yet issued the execution order, according to lawyers familiar with the case. Once the order is issued, Li will be executed within seven days.

Since her case and sentence have become known to the public in recent weeks, nearly 400 Chinese citizens, lawyers, and scholars have signed petitions calling for a halt of the execution. Separately, since November 7, more than 8,000 people have signed another petition calling for anti-domestic violence legislation. According to Chinese government statistics released in January 2013, one in four women in China are subjected to domestic violence, including marital rape and beatings. Since 2000, local governments across China have passed local regulations on domestic violence. But these regulations focus on general principles and lack specific provisions to effectively protect women from domestic violence. In Sichuan Province, where Li Yan lives, the anti-domestic violence regulation does not include protective orders for victims.

The growing call for anti-domestic violence legislation prompted the Supreme People’s Court’s own investigation into the issue. The investigation, made public in January 2013, found current laws and regulations insufficient to protect women from domestic violence. According to the Supreme People’s Court, there is no clear standard stipulating the conditions under which investigations and prosecutions should be initiated; as a result, such investigations and prosecutions are rare. Even when such cases do come before courts, judges tend to treat domestic violence as a marital dispute and issue light punishments to abusers. The Supreme People’s Court investigation also pointed out that in cases where women respond to violence with violence, law enforcement agencies tend to discount their claims of abuse and failed to take them into account during sentencing.

Since 2008, the state-run All China Women’s Federation has recommended that the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, draft a law to address domestic violence. Apart from an announcement that such drafting was in its work plans in early 2012, there has been no government information on details, timing, or when such draft laws might be discussed or adopted.

As a state party to several international treaties that guarantee women’s rights, the Chinese government is obliged to take effective measures to address domestic violence and its consequences for women. These actions should include effective legal measures, including penal sanctions, civil remedies, and compensatory provisions; preventive measures, including public information and education programs to change attitudes about the roles and status of men and women; and protective measures, including shelters, counseling, rehabilitation, and support services. China should enact a comprehensive law against domestic violence in accordance with the good practices detailed in the UN Handbook on Legislation on Violence Against Women.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently irreversible, inhumane punishment. A majority of countries in the world have abolished the practice. On December 18, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution by a wide margin calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

“Executing Li Yan does nothing to ensure justice in this horrific incident,” said Richardson. “Even worse, it sends a message to those enduring domestic violence across China that abuses against them will go unpunished.”

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