China’s highest court in Inner Mongolia apologized today for wrongfully convicting and executing an 18-year-old Inner Mongolian man for the rape and murder of a woman almost two decades ago. Reading aloud an announcement overturning the guilty verdict, the court’s deputy president, Zhao Jianping, said to the weeping parents of the teenager, named Huugjilt: “Our sincere apologies. We are sorry.”
The case has become a lightning rod for anger at China’s justice system and liberal use of the death penalty. The exact number of people executed in China is a state secret, but human rights groups estimate the figure is around 2,400 a year—more than three times the rest of the world combined. On Weibo, Huugjilt’s case has become one of the most discussed topics, with 150 million views, comments, or forwards. Over a thousand users responded to a post by Huugjilt’s parents, who thanked the public for their support.
“What’s wrong with this society? The innocent parents suffered all those years of hardship and injustice. Now they are saying thank you to us. Great motherland and fair government, will you feel guilty seeing their thanks? Can you bring an 18-year-old back to life?” one blogger wrote. Another said, “Is late justice really justice?” Others called for abolishing the death penalty.
It’s because of cases like Huugjilt’s that China has started to cut back on the number of executions it carries out. Earlier this year, authorities overturned the death sentence of a woman convicted of killing her husband after suffering months of domestic abuse.
Huugjilt’s trial took place at a time when convictions were seen as proof of the success of a nationwide crackdown on crime. Huugjilt had called police after finding a woman’s body in a public bathroom. He became a suspect as authorities questioned his reason for being in a woman’s bathroom in the first place—Huugjilt, coming from dinner, said that he was drunk and had stumbled into the bathroom. Within two months, he was convicted of murder, rape, and “hooliganism,” a catchall charge that has since been abolished, and eventually was executed. Authorities reopened the case this fall, after petitions from his parents and a confession in 2006 from another man who said he had killed a woman in a Hohhot bathroom in 1996.
Today, bloggers also started to rally around the cause of another couple who believes their son was wrongfully executed. Nie Shubin from Hebei province was convicted of murder and rape, and executed in 1995, but in 2005, another man claimed that he was the real perpetrator of the crime. One Weibo user wrote, “Poor parents. The entire country owes you an apology.”