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China in a no-win situation in Norwegian slaying

Norway and China are at odds over a case that involves blood, passion and a fundamental concern about human rights, but this time it’s not about the Nobel Peace Prize.

Instead, it is a garden-variety homicide, a young woman — in this case Norwegian — killed in Hungary, allegedly by her jilted lover, a Chinese student.

When it was learned this month that Chinese officials had freed the suspect, despite an apparent confession, many Norwegians saw the move as a blatant act of retaliation by China for the Oslo-based Nobel committee having awarded its annual peace prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

But as more facts emerge, the case appears to center on another political difference between Europe and China: capital punishment, which China frequently employs but which European Union members have abolished.

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In fact, EU opposition to the death penalty includes restrictions on providing evidence to other countries in cases where the accused could face execution.

Since Hungary didn’t hand over evidence in the stabbing death of 21-year-old Pernille Marie Thronsen, whose body was found in a Budapest youth hostel, Chinese authorities said they had no grounds to continue holding Zhao Fei, who had flown home to China shortly after the killing.

“This is a unique case,” said Tang Hongxin, a Beijing criminal defense attorney. “Although he turned himself into police and might have confessed, the police cannot charge him without supporting evidence.”

Talk about unique: In perhaps the ultimate twist, human rights advocates long critical of China for its disdainful treatment of opposition figures such as Nobel winner Liu, are now in the position of praising China for respecting homicide suspect Zhao’s legal rights.

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“I think it was a good measure for the Chinese saying they had to release Zhao,” said Gerald Folkvord, a political advisor to Amnesty International in Oslo.

He added, though, that it is now up to China and Hungary to strike a deal so that the suspect is tried and sent to prison if found guilty. “It is also a human rights obligation that a person who committed a serious violent crime be brought to justice,” Folkvord said.

The night of Aug. 28, Thronsen, a veterinary student, failed to show up at a concert where she was supposed to meet friends. The next day, her body was discovered with multiple stab wounds by a hostel employee. She had been dead about 24 hours.

Hungarian police quickly focused on Zhao, 26, a fellow student whom she had dated and broken up with.

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The room had been rented in his name and surveillance cameras recorded him leaving the hostel shortly after the apparent time of death. On the day that her body was discovered, Zhao posted a message on Thronsen’s Facebook page that read almost like an admission of guilt.

“I was in love. I was in pain. I was sick. … I hope you don’t hate me. I hope when I die we will meet and be together again. I will cook for you, look after you, stay by your side all the time,” read Zhao’s missive, posted next to photographs of the two in happier times — she with tousled blond ringlets and geometric European eyeglasses, and he with a crew cut and even-toothed smile.

Zhao flew home to China before he could be arrested by Hungarian police. On Sept. 1, the day Thronsen’s funeral was held at Oslo’s Valerenga Church, Zhao turned himself in to Beijing police and according to reports in the Norwegian media, confessed to the crime.

It seemed like an open-and-shut case — until Norwegians learned weeks later, shortly after the Nobel peace prize announcement on Oct. 8, that Zhao had been released.

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At first, Norwegians suspected Zhao’s release was linked to China’s anger over the peace prize.

China had called the award “blasphemy” since it was given to a “criminal,” and threatened that it would damage bilateral relations with Norway, whose parliament appoints the Nobel prize judges. In the following week, when Zhao’s release was made public, China also cancelled a meeting with a Norwegian fisheries minister.

Angry friends of the slain girl called for a boycott of China and bloggers from around the world vented.

“Vindictive, petty,” wrote one blogger. “Childish and evil. So they just set a murderer loose among their own people. … That sounds like a pretty stupid idea to me.”

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But the truth proved more complicated.

The Norwegian foreign ministry, urging calm, issued a strong statement saying the suspect had been released before the prize was announced and that there was “no relation” between the two.

It also turned out that Hungary had failed to turn over paperwork on the case because of the EU regulation preventing member nations from cooperating on cases that could lead to the death penalty, which Zhou could face if he was tried on murder charges in China.

China executes more people than any other country in the world and while the official number is a state secret, Amnesty International estimates that thousands of people were put to death in 2009. Hungary abolished the death penalty in 1990 and has been a member of the European Union since 2004.

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“Normally in a case like this, the boy should be brought back to Hungary to face trial, but since he is a Chinese citizen, the government said the trial should take place in China and he would likely face the death penalty for homicide,” said Bela Varga, a Budapest-based lawyer involved in human rights issues.

European opposition to the death penalty has at times complicated extraditions to the United States. But a pact was signed last October making it less cumbersome if U.S. prosecutors promise not to seek the death penalty.

Almost nothing has appeared in the state-controlled Chinese media about Zhao Fei, who former classmates say is the scion of a wealthy Beijing family who own property in the south of France, according to Norwegian news reports. Chinese authorities have not commented publicly since Zhao’s release.

“We haven’t had much luck finding out about his release or his whereabouts,” said Karoline Henriksen, an Oslo-based lawyer representing Thronsen’s family. She said the family learned on Oct. 12, four days after the Nobel Peace Prize was announced, that Zhao had been freed, but was told it had happened earlier. The exact date is not clear.

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Beijing criminal defense attorney Tang said that Chinese authorities had no choice but to release Zhao after 30 days. He cited a 1996 Chinese law that prohibits prosecution solely on the basis of a confession; it was enacted with the aim of preventing torture.

However, Tang said that Zhao remains under surveillance and could be arrested again if the Hungarian police turn over their files. He also said that a deal could me made to spare Zhao the death penalty because he surrendered voluntarily.

As for whether China did the right thing, Shanghaiist, a popular English-language website, called it “rare (and ironic) display of legal compliance.”

“Who cannot commend China’s sudden passionate adherence to the constitutional rule of law?” wrote columnist Robert Foyle. “Supporters of [imprisoned Nobel laureate] Liu probably wish it weren’t quite so schizophrenic.”

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The case has also set off a debate in Norway about the death penalty. Many fretted about what would happen to Zhao Fei if he is tried in China. “Poor boy probably doesn’t have long to live,” wrote one Norwegian blogger.

But comments posted on the web site of the newspaper Dagbladet were harsher. “At least [in China] he will get a punishment that fits the crime. … Here in Norway he’d get a hotel room and compensation when he’s done serving his time. Let him hang if he’s found guilty.”

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.


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