Eleven Villagers Seek Exoneration in Decade-Old Rape Case
A dozen police cars swooped in on a remote village in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang on Oct. 28, 2008, turning the sleepy community upside down.
Officers took away 16 villagers who were linked to the alleged repeated rape — in some cases, gang rape — of Tang Lanlan, who was 14 at the time of the raid.
Eleven of the villagers, including Tang’s parents, were charged and later handed sentences ranging from five years to life in prison in 2010 on charges of raping the girl since she was 6 and forcing her into prostitution.
This small village in the town of Longshan in Heilongjiang’s Wudalianchi is back in the spotlight a decade later, as the convicted, most of whom have been released since 2016, have joined their families in petitioning to various authorities against what they describe as an injustice, saying the 11 were tortured by police into confessing.Among them is Chen Chunfu, Tang’s then-head teacher, who was sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of raping her. Chen told Caixin during a recent interview that police officers beat him so severely during his interrogation that he ended up saying what the police wanted him to say.
“I could not afford to die, and I must keep myself alive to seek justice later,” he said.
Amid mounting pressure, the Heilongjiang High People’s Court said it is reviewing the cases against the 11 people with an eye on possible retrials, according to Deng Xueping, the attorney of Tang Jihai, Tang Lanlan’s father, who is serving a life sentence for rape and forced prostitution.
In recent years, China has had a string of revelations of miscarriages of justice resulting from forced confessions. Nie Shubin, a 20-year-old from Shijiazhuang in the northern province of Hebei, was hastily trialed and executed in 1995 after being convicted of raping and killing a woman. Nie, who was exonerated in a retrial ordered by China’s top court, the Supreme People’s Court, in June 2016 over insufficient evidence, was tortured by police into confessions leading to his wrongful conviction, court documents show.
Claims of abuse
Tang Lanlan was a seventh-grader in 2008 when she told police that she had been raped and gang-raped on multiple occasions since she was 6 by her own grandfather, father, teacher Chen, their village head, and several other relatives and local villagers.
Both Tang’s mother, Wan Xiuling, and grandmother Li Xiuzhi, whom Tang said were aware of the assaults, did not try to intervene, and her own mother even forced her to sell sex for money, according to police files viewed by Caixin.
The house in which Tang Lanlan and her parents used to live. The farmhouse has been vacant since her parents were detained over alleged rape and forced prostitution in October 2008. Photo: Xiao Hui/Caixin
Five people, including Tang’s grandmother, were released without being charged. The remaining 11, including her parents, were charged and sentenced in 2010 to five years to life in prison.
Caixin was unable to reach Tang to comment on what prompted her to come forward with the allegations eight years after she was first raped as she claimed.
Her aunt, Tang Yumei, told Caixin that she last saw her niece around 2012, when the two bumped into each other in the street, but Tang refused to talk to her. All others Caixin have spoken with said they have not seen Tang since.
Wan Xiuling, Tang’s mother, said that she received a phone call from her daughter on Oct. 1, 2008, telling her that she was impregnated by her own father. Both Wan and her husband were shocked by the claim. “My husband dismissed the claim as nonsense but asked me to check our daughter out the following day because he took the claim as a sign that our daughter was becoming bad,” she said.
Wan said they had paid a couple living in downtown Longzhen, a town about 30 kilometers (18 miles) away from their remote village, to take in Tang so that she could attend better-resourced schools there.
Wan told Caixin that she slapped Tang in the face at the couple’s place for refusing to come home with her, and that her daughter yelled at her when Wan left, vowing to “send you all to prison.”
Tang told police that their parents were separated and later briefly divorced when she was about 6, and she was alone at home with her father one summer night in 2000 when her father raped her for the first time, according to police files.
Tang told police that her father forced her to have sex on multiple occasions, and her mother, who later got back with her father, learned of the rape but did not try to stop it. Instead, her parents forced her to sell sex to others.
Tang also told police that her father and Liu Changhai, the husband of her aunt Tang Yumei, tied her to a post inside the Tang family’s house on an autumn day in 2003 before she was gang-raped by five men without saying who the men were, she told police.
Wan Xiuling, Tang Lanlan’s mother who was jailed for 10 years for forcing her daughter into prostitution in 2008, was at Beijing Railway Station on Feb. 2. She was about to take a train to stay with a relative in the northeastern province of Liaoning, as she had no money left to further fund her trip to petition against the injustice she claims she experienced. Photo: Cai Yingli/Caixin
The prosecutor’s office in Heihe, which administers Wudalianchi, charged the 11 people with rape and forced prostitution in eight separate cases in 2009.
Tang Jihai was charged with raping his daughter on multiple occasions and for forcing her into prostitution, and sentenced to life in prison. The mother, Wan, was sentenced to 10 years in prison over forced prostitution in October 2010.
The couple and all other nine people convicted in the case have all insisted they are innocent of the rape charges and have appealed for justice via their families and by those who were released from prison in 2016.
Wan was accused of taking 50 yuan (about $6 at the time) each from local villagers Wang Zhanjun and Liang Liquan on a summer day in 2006 to let the pair have sex with her daughter, according to court documents.
That is different from what Wan told police in an interrogation on Oct. 29, 2008. She said that her husband gave her 500 yuan, including 300 yuan from Wang. She changed her statement the following day, saying she received 50 yuan from Wang and another 50 yuan from Liang, according to police files viewed by Caixin.
The inconsistency in her statement was a result of a police beating, Wan said. “Two police officers took turns beating me up, and the beating was so unbearable that I just said whatever they wanted me to say,” she said.
She said she recanted all she said to police when she was alone with prosecutors because prosecutors did not beat her, though she still did not know why she was still charged with taking the money.
Wan, released in late June 2017 after her sentence was commuted, told Caixin that she went to visit her husband in prison last year. “He became unusually quiet throughout the visit, but he asked me to keep petitioning to have his name cleared because he was convicted on forced confessions.”
Tang Jihai showed a tooth that he had hidden inside his shoe during his trial in 2010 and he said it was knocked out of his mouth during a police beating. However, trial judges ignored his claim, according to Wan.
Wan said she and her husband earned 20,000 to 30,000 yuan a year, a lot back then, from more than 16 acres of land under their names. They spent up to 6,000 yuan a year to send Tang Lanlan to better-resourced township schools. “We all have children. If you could put yourself in my shoes, would you sell your own daughter for 100 yuan?” she asked.
Chen, Tang Lanlan’s former head teacher, told Caixin that he did not admit to the alleged rape in the first two police interrogations but was beaten so severely in the following session that he just repeated what Tang accused him of.
He also retracted what he told police when he was with prosecutors because they did not beat him and later changed it back when he was interrogated by police.
Tang told police that Chen raped her in her classroom on a spring day in 2004, and one of her classmates happened to peek into the room at the time. However, the classmate, Si Yongsheng, told police that he did see the pair inside, but a rape wasn’t taking place, according to police files.
Police officers who got involved in investigations and were later brought in to testify at court denied use of coercive measures to force the defendants into confessions.
Tang was sent to a local women’s and children’s hospital for a checkup on the day she reported the alleged rape to police, and her hymen was found to have been broken for some time. She had a history of sexual intercourse, according to an examination conducted at Judicial Identification under Heilongjiang Provincial Hospital in December 2009. She was also cleared of any mental disorders by Heilongjiang No. 3 Hospital in November the same year.
But she tried to blackmail Liu Guiying, a distant relative, in November 2008, according to Liu. Liu told Caixin that Tang called her on the evening of Nov. 5, 2008, asking for 3,000 yuan in return for her silence about how Tang’s claim that she was raped by Liu’s elder brother. Tang increased the amount to 10,000 yuan in a following phone conversation that Liu recorded.
The phone call was presented at court, but was ruled by the presiding judge as irrelevant to the rape charges, according to Wang Danyang, the then-lawyer for Wan.
Wang Fengchao and Li Zhongyun, the couple with whom Tang Lanlan had stayed for over a year, told police that they encouraged her to report the sexual assault to police. After they noticed a bump in Tang’s belly, the couple took her to a township hospital for an ultrasound scan on March 31, 2008, which showed no sign of pregnancy, according to police files.
But Wan said that the couple also gave her an identical copy of Tang’s ultrasound scan result, saying the opposite when Wan visited the couple and Tang on Oct. 3 that year. Police have both copies, but there was no mention of investigation in police files and court documents into the conflicting results. Both Wang and Li declined to meet with a Caixin reporter.
Testimonies from some witnesses appeared questionable, according to Caixin investigations.
Tong Bing, a detainee who was once locked up in the same detention facility with Ji Guangcai, one of the 11 convicted, told the court that Ji told him he had raped Tang three times and had also given her father 100 yuan, according to court documents.
But Tong, reached by Caixin on Jan. 15, said he didn’t know Ji and had never been asked to testify.
Another detainee who asked not to be named told Caixin that he once stayed in the same cell with Ji, and he saw Ji’s body was covered in dark bruises from his bottom up and the neck down. He was not asked to testify against Ji.
The Heihe Intermediate People’s Court, which handled the cases against the 11, did not respond to Caixin inquiries.
But their verdicts are full of holes and many unanswered questions because the court relied too much on Tang’s own accounts, confessions from the defendants and the testimony of questionable witnesses, according to Peng Xinlin, a deputy head of the Institute for Chinese Criminal Law under Beijing Normal University, who has studied court documents in the cases. There was grave lack of physical evidence and cross-examination in their trials, he said.
He has particularly pointed out the lack of accurate descriptions in court papers like “one spring day in 2003.” “This indicated to a significant degree that judges weren’t sure of the testimonies and evidence themselves,” he said.
“As far as these cases are concerned, they should have been required to prove beyond reasonable doubt if the court had wanted to uphold justice.”
Contact reporter Li Rongde (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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