BEIJING — An 80-year-old man accused of killing a local doctor during China’s Cultural Revolution 45 years ago has been sentenced to three years and six months, a punishment the court said was appropriately light in part because the crime took place during “a special historical period.”
The reasoning by a municipal court in the city of Rui’an, laid out in a five-page ruling dated March 7 but that the victim’s family said they received only on Friday, hinted at the lingering sensitivity of the Cultural Revolution, a period fueled by the ruthless politics of Mao Zedong, the father of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
The court said the defendant, Qiu Riren, had acknowledged murdering a man named Hong Yunke, a village doctor who was captured by a militia in December 1967, a time when the nation was being terrorized by competing Red Guard factions bent on punishing those not deemed sufficiently revolutionary.
Accused of being a spy, Hong was detained in a barn and then taken to an ad hoc execution ground where Qiu and another man were assigned to strangle him with a rope, the court said. Afterward, Qiu hacked at Hong’s legs with a farming tool to make it easier to push his body down into a hole, according to the document.
The historical aspect of the murder, along with other factors, including Qiu’s confession and the fact that the crime happened before the adoption of the nation’s criminal procedure law in 1979, argued for a lenient sentence, the court said.
The court also threw out an attempt by Hong’s surviving children to sue Qiu, citing the statute of limitations. In earlier interviews, Hong’s son told McClatchy that while he knew Qiu to be impoverished he hoped that the authorities would provide funding for any damages the court ordered his father’s killer to pay.
An award of financial compensation in the case would have raised the question of precedent in a nation where millions were affected by the violence of the Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and ended a decade later.
The Communist Party has formally acknowledged that the Cultural Revolution was a mistake and that Mao was responsible, but as with many other episodes in its history it has discouraged detailed and systemic examination of what actually happened. The authoritarian ruling party, whose officials speak frequently of maintaining social order, so far has avoided peeling back those layers, much less assigning blame and compensation.
The distinction between the timing cutoff of the Hongs’ civil suit and Qiu’s criminal charges was apparently the fact that Qiu’s formal arrest had been approved in 1986, when others involved in the execution were tried. At the time, Qiu had reportedly left the area in the coastal province of Zhejiang, only to reappear last summer. There’s been no public explanation of where he was during the ensuing years.
A family member told McClatchy on Monday that Hong Zuosheng, the 59-year-old son of the victim, was upset by the verdict and preferred not to be contacted further about the case.
“Think of yourself as if you’re in (his) shoes, you should be able to understand how he feels,” said the family member, who asked that her name not be made public because of the sensitivity of the matter.
She explained that Hong “feels very disappointed. Now his point of view is: After one has killed a person, if he has escaped long enough and far enough, he can escape from legal punishment.”
The lawyer appointed to defend Qiu, Xu Guorong, said in a phone interview on Tuesday that the court’s findings were based on law and nothing else. “The court did not take politics into consideration,” he said.
Asked about his thoughts on the role the Cultural Revolution played in the crime, Xu said that “the Cultural Revolution was a political campaign that was implemented from top-down – that is what caused the outcome of this case and therefore it would not be fair for old Mr. Qiu to shoulder the entire responsibility.”
It is not yet clear whether Qiu, who is said to be in poor health, will serve his sentence in a detention facility or be allowed to stay at home under some form of supervision, Xu said. That, he said, is a matter for the court to decide.
McClatchy special correspondent Joyce Zhang contributed to this report.