Zhang Yuhuan, 53, was released on Tuesday after the People’s Supreme Court in eastern Jiangxi province found him “not guilty” based on a lack of sufficient evidence, according to reports from the Chinese state media Global Times.
The result came after a long legal battle to overturn the sentence and highlights the ongoing issues within the Chinese legal system.
In 1993, two boys were found dead in the city of Nanchang in Jiangxi province, according to the report. Police suspected that the neighbor of the Zhang boys had killed them.
In 1995, Zhang was sentenced to death with a two-year sentence, which means that his death sentence would have been commuted to life imprisonment if he had not committed other crimes within a two-year period, China Daily reported.
But Zhang appealed to a higher court, claiming that he was not the killer and claimed that police had tortured him during interrogations, according to the report.
The upper court ordered a new trial, but was not held until November 2001
, China Daily reported. The intermediate court upheld the original ruling and a subsequent appeal was dismissed.
Zhang and his family continued to insist that he was innocent – and finally, in March last year, the Jiangxi Supreme Court reopened the case, according to the report. On Tuesday he was found guilty.
“After examining the materials, we found that there is no direct evidence to prove Zhang’s belief. So we accepted the prosecutors’ suggestion and declared Zhang innocent,” said judge Tian Ganlin.
Zhang can now request state compensation, according to reports from Global Times.
According to the China Daily report, Zhang said that the wrong belief cost him the best years of his life. Her two children are now married and have their children.
“It is difficult for compensation to compensate for the harm of the unfair sentence to me and my family, but I still hope to quickly get compensation for repairing my home and taking care of my mother,” said Zhang.
For years, human rights advocates have criticized the Chinese legal system, arguing that it allows for unfair trials, torture and other ill-treatment in detention.
China has attempted to reform its legal system. According to the Global Times report, China officially adopted the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty” in 1996.
In 2013, an influential Communist Party legal commission published new guidelines calling for a fair trial in China’s highly maligned justice system.
However, problems remain with the country’s legal system. The Chinese justice system has a conviction rate of around 99%, according to legal observers. It also remains tied to the Communist Party in power. Courts are seen primarily as a “political body”, according to the country’s chief judge Zhou Qiang.
It is rare for people to reverse beliefs, although Zhang is not the first.
In 2013, a man who served 17 years of life in prison for the murder of his wife was released after a higher people’s court in Anhui province ruled that “the facts about the alleged murder were unclear and the evidence inadequate” .
In 2016, the Chinese Supreme Court quashed Nie Shubin’s rape and murder conviction, more than two decades after he was executed.
Ruan Chuansheng, a professor of law at the Shanghai Administration Institute, said the ruling in Zhang’s case showed the advancement of the rule of law, according to the China Daily. But he also said that judicial authorities could help prevent illegal convictions by excluding evidence gained through torture.