Zhao Zuohai: Beaten, framed and jailed for a murder that never happened

Innocent man thanks prison chiefs after his 'victim' comes back from the dead

By Clifford Coonan
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:34

The story of Zhao Zuohai reads like an ancient Chinese tragedy.

The first act took place in 1999, when the dirt-poor farmer from Henan province had a violent argument with a fellow peasant, Zhao Zhenshang. His opponent, no relation despite a shared surname, disappeared into thin air. Later a headless, decomposed corpse was found in a well, and produced as evidence of Zhao Zuohai's murderous deed.

He was tortured, forced to confess and received the inevitable death sentence, before eventually winning a reprieve from the firing squad and having his sentence commuted to a 29-year jail term.

Then, 11 years into his incarceration, his "victim" turned up alive and well in their home village of Zhaolou – a scene of heartbreak to rival the best of classical Chinese opera. Zhao Zuohai's tragedy was compounded by the fact that in the interim, his wife had left him, remarried and given up two of their children up for adoption.

Yesterday, the 57-year-old finally won justice – of a sort.

The Henan authorities announced that the newly liberated man is to be awarded 650,000 yuan in compensation – roughly £4,000 pounds for each year of his false imprisonment.

Had his supposed victim not fallen on hard times and resurfaced in his hometown in search of welfare support, Zhao Zuohai would have languished in his cell until well into his seventies.

Yet remarkably, he shows little bitterness, given the monstrous injustice he suffered. "Thanks for the education I received in prison, and for looking after me inside for those years," he told the Beijing News, apparently without the slightest trace of irony.

Henan is China's most populous province, and its dubious reputation nationwide is as a province filled with thieving farmers. In reality, Henan is home to 100 million people trying to eke out a living from the overworked land – growing crops of wheat, soybean, peanut, cotton and tobacco.

Like many a desolate setting for a powerful film, the options in villages like Zhaolou is either to stay and till the land, which is increasingly overfarmed, or to leave. The precise nature of the argument between the two Zhaos is unclear – some say women, the more likely explanation is money.

Zhao the "murder victim" reappeared on 2 May. "He returned to the village a few days ago, partially paralysed," explained Yu Hantao, another villager.

The man who came back from the dead said he had fled because he had dealt his opponent such a blow in the fight that he feared he had killed him. He showed little remorse for his rival's prison ordeal, telling one newspaper: "He had such a bad temper. He needed a lesson somewhere, somehow."

After being released from prison this week, Zhao Zuohai accused police of torturing a confession out of him. He said he was beaten with sticks, forced to drink chilli water, had fireworks set off over his head and deprived of sleep for about a month. "It was better to be dead than alive," he told local media.

Between 1999 and 2001, Zhao Zuohai pleaded guilty to murder nine times. "They taught me how to plead guilty. They told me to repeat what they said, and I had to, or I would be beaten. They wrote down what I repeated and said it was my confession."

Police are probing the case, and have assured him that those who secured the wrongful conviction will feel the full weight of the law.

To date, two police officers have been detained on suspicion of torturing him to get a confession. A third policeman is at large, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

The case has made headlines around China. "Heaven is above our heads. Poor Zhao Zuohai, there is no escape from a forced conviction. What pain you must have suffered in your mind, Zhao. Only first-class psychiatric care can help you now," wrote one blogger, Li Huizhi.

The Henan farmer is not the first to have suffered such abuse. In 2005, She Xianglin served 11 years in jail in central Hubei province for murdering his wife, only to be proven innocent after she turned up alive.

The Beijing government has promised to clamp down on inmate torture. Last year nearly 1,800 policemen were suspended, according to a report released on the Ministry of Public Security website. "Confessions extracted through torture are unreliable," Shangqiu's police chief Xu Dagang told Xinhua. "Police officers should learn to handle criminal cases in a more intelligent and scientific manner."

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