4 in China cleared after 2 successful death sentence appeals

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BEIJING (AP) — Four men in eastern China accused of murder and rape have been exonerated after a 16-year legal ordeal in the latest instance of Chinese courts overturning deeply flawed verdicts.

A Jiangxi province high court announced Thursday it cleared the men accused of killing a woman in 2000, apologized and offered them an opportunity to seek compensation.

The men had been sentenced to death by a municipal court in 2003 based on dubious confessions and successfully appealed. The same lower court reheard the trial and sentenced the defendants to death again the following year, only to be overruled again by the provincial court in 2006.

The provincial court reviewed the case this year and determined that forensic evidence did not match confessions given by the defendants, who said they had been tortured.

A string of stories about wrongful convictions has surfaced in recent years in China, where the government has sought to strengthen a criminal justice system wracked by police and prosecutorial misconduct. Human rights monitors say suspects are often tortured by police to extract confessions and cases are swayed by political interference.

And in court, prosecutors almost always win: China has a 99.9 percent conviction rate, according to official statistics — one of the highest in the world.

In February a man named Chen Man walked out of prison 21 years after he was wrongfully convicted. In another high-profile case, an Inner Mongolia man was exonerated for a rape and murder in 2014, 18 years after he had already been executed and nine years after another man, a serial rapist, confessed to the crime.

The parents of the man, Hugjiltu, were given 30,000 yuan ($4,300) in compensation.

Top Chinese officials, including Supreme People's Court Chief Justice Zhou Qiang, have openly spoken about the need to combat wrongful convictions and shore up public confidence. But international experts say deep problems will persist as long as China lacks an independent judiciary and the courts remain controlled by the Communist Party.

Following its investigation into the case of the four wrongfully convicted men, the Jiangxi provincial court stated that it would learn a "profound lesson" from the matter and strive to let the public feel "fairness and justice in every single case."

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