On April 24, the Chinese government’s willingness to examine domestic violence as a possible mitigating factor in sentencing will go on trial as a Sichuan court rules in the case of Li Yan, who was sentenced to death for murdering her abusive husband. Her case prompted widespread attention to domestic violence and calls to commute her death sentence from more than 400 Chinese lawyers and scholars, and international rights groups.
Li killed her husband Tan Yong in November 2010 following a violent dispute. According to Li’s lawyer, Tan kicked Li and threatened to shoot her with an air rifle when Li grabbed it and struck Tan, killing him. Since marrying in March 2009, Tan Yong had repeatedly abused Li Yan, leading her to seek help from the police and the government-organized All China Women’s Federation (ACWF), among others. No investigation was ever launched and police told Li this was “a family matter.” Despite the defense presenting compelling evidence, the court ruled it was not clear that domestic violence had taken place. Li appealed her original conviction and lost, but in June 2014, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) – which now must approve all death sentences – ordered a retrial.
The case comes at a time when the Chinese government has taken nascent, if flawed, steps to protecting women like Li. In November 2014, the government released a draft law on domestic violence that had been in the works since 1999. The draft has major loopholes, such as its narrow definition of a domestic relationship and weak protection orders.
But a March 2015 “opinion document” issued by the SPC, the Ministry of Justice, and other agencies might create some room for optimism in Li’s case. While not legally binding, the “opinion document” guides judges to consider domestic violence as a mitigating circumstance in criminal cases against victims of domestic violence – an essential improvement. It is not clear whether this will feed into the next draft of the anti-domestic violence law, which is slated for review by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) for the first time in August 2015.
Chinese government statistics released in January 2013 indicate that a quarter of all women in China endure domestic violence. In this year marking the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform of Action, will the court take into account the horrific abuse against Li Yan in determining her fate? Will the legislature adopt the new legislation with essential protections? Or will it signal to tens of millions of women in China that domestic violence remains “a family matter?”