ROUGH JUSTICE: Political whims in China cost man his freedom
BY KOICHI FURUYA CORRESPONDENT
Han Xiujin displays photos of her son, Niu Yuqiang, at her Beijing home. (Koichi Furuya)
BEIJING--Political vagaries in China can lead to irrational court decisions, such as being sentenced to death for acts that anywhere else would warrant a slap on the wrist.
This is precisely what happened to Niu Yuqiang, now 47 and in the 14th year of a prison stretch. He is not expected to be released until 2020.
Niu's first brush with the law occurred in October 1983 when he was a 20-year-old temporary worker at a state-run textile factory on the outskirts of Beijing.
He was arrested on suspicion of committing felonies, such as stealing a man's hat and shattering the window of an acquaintance's home.
Six months later, however, a Beijing court ruled that Niu and his friends had upset social order, a very serious crime. Niu was handed the death sentence, although it was suspended for two years.
China at that time was in the midst of a "yanda"--which can be translated as "strike hard"--anti-crime campaign. A government slogan was: "If you have doubts about whether to detain, detain. If you have doubts about whether to kill, kill."
Niu was not charged with theft. In the eyes of the court, he was simply a hoodlum.
He was tried with 10 friends in a closed-door session. All the defendants were found guilty, and Niu and four others were given death sentences.
Niu's mother, Han Xiujin, 75, reflected back on that time and said, "I was uneducated, so I had no idea why he received such a harsh punishment."
Police investigators never found the hat, even after searching Niu's home.
Because of the yanda campaign, police had to fulfill arrest quotas. As a result, many individuals were detained for acts that most people would not consider a crime.
The campaign began in 1983 at the instruction of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Over the course of a year, 1.02 million people were arrested and 24,000 reportedly executed. At the time, unemployment and lawlessness were rising after vast numbers of young people sent to rural areas during the Cultural Revolution returned to cities.
Niu was imprisoned at a facility in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, 3,000 kilometers from Beijing, and made to work on dam construction.
In recognition of his good behavior behind bars, Niu's sentence was reduced to life imprisonment in 1986. In 1990, another court reduced the sentence to 18 years. It was supposed to have ended in 2008.
However, Niu fell ill. He was allowed to go home for treatment, a form of parole.
In April 2004, however, prison officials turned up at Niu's home unannounced and said he had to finish the rest of his sentence.
In the meantime, China in 1997 revised its criminal law and eliminated the "hoodlum charge," for which Niu was sentenced, on the grounds it was too vague.
In 1997, Niu married Zhu Baoxia, 41. The couple had a son two years later. The family lived on a monthly welfare benefit of 400 yuan (5,000 yen, or $60).
When the two prison officials came to get Niu, the couple decided they would resume their life together after Niu completed his sentence.
However, a different political campaign shattered those hopes.
Zhu could not believe her eyes when the prison sent a notice about her husband. Prison officials concluded that Niu had escaped from prison and, as punishment, extended his sentence to 2020.
Niu was only able to return home in the first place because he had approval from the prison on grounds of ill-health. He had submitted regular reports to a nearby office that was responsible for overseeing him.
The couple stayed at the same address and never moved.
Zhu wrote to the prison and pointed out that prison officials had not once asked that Niu return to the prison.
Prison officials replied in a brusque letter, "He never contacted the prison. That is nothing more than fleeing. The extension of the sentence was the proper judgment based on laws and regulations. He should admit his crime and repent from his heart."
According to letters to his family, as well as comments by former prison inmates who were with Niu and later released, Niu believes he was framed.
All he thinks about is his son, who is now 11.
While the prison never offered a clear reason for its decision to make Niu finish his sentence, a re-examination by Chinese courts of paroles was conducted in 2004, when Niu was taken back to prison.
The Communist Party of China began a campaign that year to dispel criticism directed at the courts that prisoners were paroled after law enforcement officials accepted bribes.
All parolees nationwide had their cases re-examined.
Late last year, Zhou Ze, a Beijing-based human rights lawyer, sent a letter on Niu's behalf to the Justice Ministry that said, "The sentence extension is irrational. It is unfair from a legal standpoint and it is exceedingly cruel and inhumane."
The letter was posted on the Internet. It has drawn many sympathetic responses.
However, the authorities have not responded.
Niu's wife has only a simple request.
"Because the prison officials also have to save face, I will not ask that they correct their error. We do not need compensation," she said. "However, there is no longer any need to imprison my husband. I hope they will pardon him."