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Chinese Man Freed After His ‘Murdered’ Wife Shows Up

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Times Staff Writer

She Xianglin had spent 11 years in prison for the alleged murder of his wife when he was told last week to go home. His wife, whom police said he had bludgeoned to death and drowned in a river, missed their daughter and had come back for a visit.

The 39-year-old former security guard’s life began to unravel after his wife, Zhang Zaiyu, went missing in 1994. A female corpse turned up in a nearby reservoir, and She became the prime suspect.

After 10 days of interrogations that involved beatings and sleep deprivation, She confessed to the crime. He was initially given the death sentence, despite numerous discrepancies in his story and the lack of a murder weapon or any DNA testing to confirm that the body was that of his wife. A higher court later reduced the sentence to 15 years.

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Had the authorities investigated more carefully, She might not have spent a day in jail.

Zhang ran away from their home in Hubei province, later saying she had suffered from mental illness. She married a villager in coastal Shandong province and had a son who is now 10.

Details of the case highlight the country’s dismal record on criminal justice and its widespread use of torture to extract confessions. It is particularly troubling considering China accounts for a majority of the world’s executions each year.

According to Amnesty International, 3,797 people were executed around the world last year, about 3,400 of them in China. The group believes that many convictions in China are based on forced confessions.

“This latest case proves the Chinese judicial system is not in any condition to offer a fair trial, let alone handle death penalty cases which require extreme care and prudence,” said Ben Carrdus, China researcher at Amnesty International in London. “China lacks the basic safeguards.”

Authorities are often under pressure to crack cases quickly. Critics say regular “strike-hard” campaigns against crime give police the license to take shortcuts.

Last year, a Shandong man was convicted, lost his appeal and was executed, all within 25 days. The case was lauded by authorities as an example of efficient justice.

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Critics of the Chinese judicial system say some courts, eager to meet quotas, let errors slide by, hoping that higher jurisdictions will take notice and reverse the rulings. Not all suspects are lucky enough to escape flawed verdicts.

Nie Shubin, a farmer from Hebei province, was put to death in 1994 after being convicted of rape and murder. Earlier this year, another person confessed to the crime.

These high-profile cases have prompted serious debate within the country about the need to step up legal reform.

“In China, suspects are often treated as guilty from the start,” said We Ge, a Beijing lawyer who specializes in constitutional and human rights law. “She Xiang- lin’s case helps us understand the importance of presumption of innocence in order to protect our human rights.”

Zhang recently told state media that she would have returned home sooner if she had known that her first husband had been jailed. “I thought he had been remarried too and was doing well,” she said. “I had no idea.”

Zhang said she left home wearing only sweat pants and a sweater. She begged on the way for food and shelter, and hitched rides. Eventually, she was taken in by a farmer in Shandong and settled there.

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She said she told authorities in Shandong her name and hometown, according to the media reports. That got Zhang in trouble when she applied to marry and, under China’s one-child policy, to have a baby. Local officials initially forbade her to do both things because she was technically still married and already had a daughter. Eventually they relented, though the reason was not clear Thursday, and Zhang went on with her life with her new family.

After She was convicted, his mother and brother were arrested for protesting his innocence and continuing a missing persons search for his wife. The mother died at the age of 52, three months after being released from detention.

Zhang’s daughter was 6 years old when she disappeared. The child quit school at 13 and went to work in southern China using false identification papers.

Zhang’s husband might not have been cleared if she hadn’t felt a nagging urge to see her daughter again. Late last month, she sold the pigs she was raising and headed back to Hubei province. “I only wanted to take a peek,” Zhang told Chinese media.

So far She has declined to meet with his wife.

Chinese newspapers show the once-dapper uniformed officer looking frail and haggard in a hospital room where he is receiving treatment for medical problems that have left him barely able to see or sit. He is expected to file for legal compensation for his sufferings.

Surprisingly, he doesn’t blame his wife for what happened.

“Judicial corruption,” he told Chinese media. “If they cared at all about human life, they would not have let something like this happen.”

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