Written by Jackie Sheehan.

It is welcome news that Li Yan, despite being sentenced to death for a second time at her retrial in Sichuan last week for killing her abusive husband, has had the sentence suspended for two years, meaning that it will almost certainly be commuted to life imprisonment. However, as the Beijing law firm representing her commented, this remains “the second worst verdict” possible in a criminal case, and the much-anticipated new Domestic Violence Law, had it already been in force, might only have been of limited help to Li.

Li Yan’s marriage to Tan Yong in 2009 marked the start of 18 months of sustained violence, as her husband beat her, burned her face with lit cigarettes, banged her head against a wall, cut off part of her finger, and locked her out on a balcony with few clothes on in the middle of winter. She was sexually abused as well, and after the announcement of last week’s verdict, a member of her legal team disclosed that her husband had also sexually abused their young daughter.

She repeatedly asked for help and protection from the police and the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), neither of whom did what they were already supposed to do when approached by a victim of domestic violence, even without the clearer requirements which will be placed on them if, as expected, the new Law comes into force later this year. Many other victims besides Li report that police, ACWF staff or members of their neighbourhood committee just told them to try not to antagonize their violent husband again and sent them home when they sought help.

Things came to a head in Li’s case in November 2010, when her husband had kicked her and threatened to shoot her with his air rifle. She managed to take the gun from him and beat him to death with it, and then tried to dispose of his dismembered body, which may have been a factor in the death sentence she originally received – more recent sentencing guidance from the Supreme Court has mentioned concealing a victim’s body as an aggravating factor in cases of domestic violence.

At the original trial, it was found that there was insufficient evidence of the prolonged and severe abuse Li claimed to have experienced in her marriage, although she had gone to the police more than once, who photographed her injuries but took no other action. Second time round, testimony from neighbours and relatives confirmed her entire story – yet the result was still a death sentence, commuted because, in a memorable understatement by the court, her husband “was also at fault”.

The new Domestic Violence Law requires the police to attend any reported incident of domestic violence and promptly secure evidence at the scene, but if the perpetrator’s conduct is not judged to amount to a criminal offence, the Law says only that police “may” issue a written warning. Li Yan herself, through her lawyers, submitted comments on the draft of the new Law, and she highlighted the importance of Personal Safety Protection Rulings (restraining orders) for victims of domestic violence, saying that if she had been able to protect herself in this way while seeking a divorce, she would never have ended up killing her husband.

Li stressed in her comments on the Law that “a victim should be able to request a personal protection order from the court at any point”, but even when the Law comes into force, these orders will only be available to individuals who are bringing a civil court action against their abuser, e.g. for divorce or custody of their children. They will last a maximum of 6 months, and the courts have 48 hours to decide whether to issue an order and another 24 hours to inform the parties of it, making 72 hours in which a perpetrator of domestic violence, if not in custody, will be free to continue their abuse.

Commentary on the weakness of the Domestic Violence Law around restraining orders has attributed it to reluctance by the Chinese authorities to promise too much by way of legal protection for potentially a huge number of victims while the courts and police are unable to follow through in practice, for fear of bringing the new provisions into disrepute as soon as they are put to the test. Given how clearly the need for properly enforced restraining orders has been pointed out, however, including by victims like Li, it is very disappointing that more hasn’t been done to provide this protection under the new Law.

Li was fighting for her life when she finally killed her abusive husband, but the longer-term psychological damage caused by domestic violence is seldom treated as a mitigating factor in cases like these. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is regarded as something which typically results from a single traumatic incident, so psychiatrists were dispatched from Beijing to help survivors of the knife attack at Kunming Station in which 33 people died in March 2014, but women like Li Yan don’t even receive a psychological assessment to help decide whether they should be held criminally responsible for their actions.

This helps to explain why there are so many women in China serving prison terms for murdering violent partners. Homicide is not that common a crime in the PRC; according to successive Statistical Yearbooks, it has been trending downwards from 0.68% of the total number of criminal cases recorded by police in 2000 to only 0.16% in 2013. But women prisoners convicted of murder in one provincial prison in 2013 constituted nearly 8% of inmates, the fourth largest category after those convicted of drugs offences, theft and fraud, according to Anqi Shen’s 2014 book, Offending Women in Contemporary China. And despite some claims that average sentences for such women are becoming lighter, a 2011 study found that 59% of women in a prison in Li Yan’s home province of Sichuan convicted of killing or injuring their husband were serving a suspended death sentence or life imprisonment, while 88% were serving more than 10 years.

Li Yan may have had 400 lawyers and women’s-rights activists petitioning the authorities over the injustice of her original sentence, but this was not the only lobbying taking place over the case. Li Yan’s former in-laws, reportedly an influential family locally, have pushed strongly for her execution, even threatening suicide if the verdict did not go their way, and at the second trial members of the family swore at her lawyers and threw shoes at them, with one shouting in court that her (female) lawyers “should be raped 500 times” for defending her. Laws, even good ones, can only do so much in a society where men’s interests automatically outrank women’s, and where even abused women themselves are socialized to regard their suffering as a fate to be endured rather than a wrong to be righted.

Jackie Sheehan is Professor and Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork, and a Regular Contributor to the CPI blog. Image Credit: CC by Kenneth Lu/Flickr.

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