Society

Heavy toll

Man told he faced life in prison for a traffic offence

Speed camera: an image of Shi taken from very blurred TV footage

Almost four years ago to the day, Timothy Brady gained the dubious honour of being the UK’s foremost speed merchant. He was caught by police driving a Porsche 911 Turbo (what else?) at 172mph, reported the BBC. Local police put that speed’s consequences in perspective: within the time it takes to blink an eye, his Porsche would have travelled five car lengths.

Brady’s penalty was a 10 week prison sentence and a three year driving ban.

That’s a severe penalty, but Brady can probably count himself lucky he wasn’t living in China, if a recent traffic violation is anything to go by. Last week a court in Henan province sentenced a man to life in jail for (wait for it) not paying his toll fees.

The case has aroused huge controversy on China’s internet, stirring up debate about the vagaries of the country’s legal system.

It’s the first time a life sentence has been doled out for evading road tolls. The accused, Shi Jianfeng, had managed to dodge paying Rmb3.68 million ($557,000) in tolls, claimed the Pingdingshan Intermediate People’s Court. Shi allegedly skipped through toll booths 2,362 times (without paying) between May 2008 and January 2009.

How did he do it? The court claimed that Shi had illegally purchased military licence plates (the army doesn’t pay tolls) and used them to truck stone and sand to a construction project.

When news of the court’s verdict first broke, it caused astonishment. Using their knowledge of tolls, and the typical distance between toll gates, netizens tried to figure out whether it was feasible to evade so many millions of yuan in bills within an eight month period.

It didn’t require advanced calculus to conclude something didn’t stack up. It was calculated that Shi would have evaded Rmb260 of tolls each trip, meaning he would’ve needed to make 14,153 journeys to run-up Rmb3.68 million in unpaid fees. That would have meant around 58 illegal trips per day.

A web user on sina.com noted: “I suspect the court did not check the facts and the punishment is too excessive.” Chen Xingyi, a Beijing-based lawyer told the China Daily: “The court ought to explain how it calculated the amount of money evaded and how prosecutors argued for its authenticity.”

A new twist emerged at the weekend when Shi’s brother went to the police and claimed he was the one responsible. The Beijing News reported that the younger Shi had paid off two police officers for the fake military plates.

The local court was (by now) backtracking at pace. Stung by both the notoriety of the verdict and the new evidence, a retrial was offered. Meanwhile the Henan Provincial Higher People’s Court said at a news conference on Sunday that the life sentence was based on insufficient evidence and suggested dropping the charges.

The ongoing saga, says the blog Baidu Beat, provides more evidence of “the power of internet public opinion in China”. It reckons “netizen outrage” was responsible for getting Shi his retrial. It’s hard to disagree with that verdict – if only because it’s not the first time. WiC has reported before on how netizens have swayed the scales in controversial court cases (see WiC18). Thus far, the internet has helped common folk get justice. And revealingly enough, the two judges in charge of Shi’s trial, China Daily reported, “have been temporarily removed from their posts”.

In a country that doesn’t have a legacy of habeas corpus or trial by jury, faith in the courts is understandably weak. In fact, another case that’s recently grabbed headlines is perhaps more damning. It involves Niu Yuqiang, a man who was jailed for the crime of ‘hooliganism’ in 1984. His crime? He snatched a hat from a passer-by and fought with other youths in the street in 1983.

You may be surprised to hear he’s still in jail, a situation the South China Morning Post believes “sounds like a classic case of the punishment not fitting the crime”.

But his lawyer believes Niu’s case has a broader legal significance. Hooliganism was scrapped as a crime in 1997. That means Niu is in prison for a law that no longer exists.

Legal professionals in China have called for an amnesty. Under the current sentence, Niu won’t be free for another 10 years, so will not emerge from prison till he is 57.


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