China executed a farmer who was sentenced to death for murdering a local official in a case that has sparked a rare discussion about the rule of law, corruption and the death penalty in the country. Jia Jinglong was a young man living in the Chang'an district in the outskirts of Shijiazhuang city, south-west of Beijing, who decided to kill the village chief with a modified nail gun in February 2015 following the demolition of his house.
Two years before the murder, Jia was preparing to get married to his long-time girlfriend and had begun renovating the family home for the wedding.
The area where the two-storey house stood had, however, been allocated for redevelopment and had to be demolished with or without his owner's consent.
A few weeks before the wedding, Jia and his family were attacked and evicted by unidentified thugs. The house was subsequently demolished, burying under the rubble Jia's wedding plans as the bride's family opposed her marriage to someone who could not provide a home for her.
As reported in local media, Jia tried to claim some form of compensation and lodged complaints to local authorities for how he was treated, but he found no way for justice to be done. His frustration drove him to murder the village chief, whom he saw as responsible for his treatment.
Jia received an unusual outpouring of support from various sources, including two state-run newspapers. He had become a symbol of the everyday struggle against forced evictions and land seizures, a longstanding cause of discontent within China despite the Communist Party's claims of upholding basic rights under the rule of law and fighting corruption.
"The execution of course does no good to curbing corruption," Professor Zhang Qiafran, a Peking University law scholar who was among those calling for Jia's life to be spared, told IBTimes UK. He added that the verdict sends the signal that the state supports officials who might be involved in corruption.
Speaking to the Associated Press, his sister Jia Jingyuan said the case had resonated with other Chinese people who had been subjected to abuses of power: "What he has experienced is what many are going through or will be going through," she said. "There is a lot of injustice in society, and people's basic rights haven't been upheld."
As the case progressed to the Supreme Court and Jia faced a potential death sentence, Maya Wang, a researcher in China for Human Rights Watch, told the AP that this was a rare, public test for the judiciary system. "On the one hand, if [the Supreme Court] doesn't approve the death penalty, it would seem to be soft on a case in which an ordinary citizen has killed an official," Wang said. "On the other hand, if it approves the death penalty, it will heighten the sense of injustice that the public already feels against the criminal justice system."
The Supreme People's Court confirmed Jia's death sentence. The verdict was opposed by several Chinese criminal justice experts who argued that mitigating factors were not taken into account or dismissed by the court. According to Amnesty International, the court approved the death sentence with immediate execution on 31 August 2016 while his lawyers only received notification on 18 October. Jia voluntarily turned himself in to the police, which usually results in a sentence of death with a "two-year reprieve", often commuted to a prison term after two years of good behaviour rather than immediate execution.
But the public outcry and Jia's sister appeal for clemency fell on deaf ears. The news of Jia's execution on Tuesday (15 November 2016) was reported by China's Xinhua news agency, which quoted the court's verdict in describing the murder as "cruel" and having an "extremely negative effect on society".
According to professor Zhang, Jia's execution sends a message to those who seek to resist land seizures and redevelopment programmes: "Violent resistance is not to be tolerated by the state, even if the provoking action is in itself illegal," he told IBTimes UK.
China is believed to have the highest death-penalty rate in the world, but, as Amnesty International reported, the information on the topic is classified as "state secret" and the estimation of executions is difficult to corroborate.