China’s highest court overturned a death sentence and ordered a retrial for a woman who killed and dismembered her abusive husband, a ruling welcomed by advocates of the country’s often-silent victims of domestic violence.
The woman’s attorney, Guo Jianmei, said she received confirmation from the Supreme People’s Court, the country’s highest court, about its ruling in the case of Li Yan, who had been sentenced to death in 2011 for killing her husband.
Li has become a rallying point for activists against domestic abuse in China, where police and courts commonly turn a blind eye to victims of domestic violence.
Feng Yuan, a Beijing women’s rights activist, called the court ruling a “positive development” and said she hoped that during the retrial “the court would make a fair ruling that considers the whole picture of domestic abuse and not just the violent incident on its own, so that it would give victims of domestic abuse a glimmer of hope”.
The high court’s ruling means Li will likely be spared execution after a retrial, a significant victory for the hundreds of lawyers, intellectuals and activists who signed a petition early last year urging the court to reject the penalty.
Li’s younger brother, Li Dehuai, also said his sister wrote to him about the ruling in a letter.
“The court said it was overturning the sentence because the facts are unclear and the evidence is ambiguous,” Li Dehuai said by phone.
Those who supported Li Yan said she deserved some leniency because of the repeated verbal and physical abuses she suffered, and her sense of desperation after attempts to seek help from police and a government-run women’s group were unsuccessful.
“In the struggle for human rights — and women’s rights — in China, this decision will be remembered,” said John Kamm, an American rights campaigner who runs the Dui Hua Foundation.
Li’s case garnered attention both for the horrific accounts of abuse she suffered as well as the gruesome details of how she ended the abuse by killing her husband, dismembering his body and boiling parts of it.
After her arrest in late 2010, Li described how her husband would frequently get drunk and take out his frustrations by beating her, burning her face with cigarettes and locking her out on a balcony in the winter.
He also cut off one of her fingers.
The court’s decision was “significant and the right course of action“, said William Nee, a China researcher at rights group Amnesty International.
Domestic violence pervades about a quarter of all Chinese families, and nearly a tenth of intentional homicide cases involved it, the Supreme People’s Court said in February.
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