BEIJING (AP) — China's highest court overturned a death sentence and ordered a retrial for a woman who killed and dismembered her abusive husband, a ruling welcomed Tuesday by advocates of the country's often-silent victims of domestic violence.
The woman's attorney, Guo Jianmei, said she received confirmation from the Supreme People's Court, the country's highest court, about its ruling in the case of Li Yan, who had been sentenced to death in 2011 for slaying her husband.
Li has become a rallying point for activists against domestic abuse in China, where police and courts commonly turn a blind eye to victims of domestic violence.
Feng Yuan, a Beijing women's rights activist, called the court ruling a "positive development" and said she hoped that during the retrial, "the court would make a fair ruling that considers the whole picture of domestic abuse and not just the violent incident on its own, so that it would give victims of domestic abuse a glimmer of hope."
The high court's ruling means Li will likely be spared execution after the retrial, a significant victory for the hundreds of lawyers, intellectuals and activists who signed a petition early last year urging the court to reject the penalty.
Li's younger brother, Li Dehuai, also said Tuesday his sister wrote to him about the ruling in a letter he received Monday.
"The court said it was overturning the sentence because the facts are unclear and the evidence is ambiguous," Li Dehuai said by phone.
Li's case garnered attention both for the horrific accounts of abuse she suffered as well as the gruesome details of how she ended the abuse by killing her husband, dismembering his body and boiling parts of it.
After her arrest in late 2010, Li described how her husband would frequently get drunk and take out his frustrations by beating her, burning her face with cigarettes and locking her out on a balcony in the winter.
As the beatings grew, so did Li's depression, her brother said. "But she never talked about it. She would always make up excuses because she knew that he would beat her more if he knew she told other people about it."
Then on the evening of Nov. 3, 2010, Li was washing the dishes after dinner while her husband drank liquor and took out a high-pressure air gun he used for hunting birds, Li's brother said, confirming details of local media reports. The couple got into an argument and she struck him in the head with the barrel of the gun and he died, Li Dehuai said.
In a panic, Li then started dismembering the body in an effort to get rid of it, boiling some parts and throwing other parts in an outdoor fire. "That was her biggest mistake," Li's brother said. "That made the case much worse for her. She did it. No one can help her because that was all true."
But Li also called a friend during the process and asked that they report the killing to the police — which was eventually how the authorities discovered the crime, Li Dehuai said.
Courts in Sichuan province, where Li lives, ruled in 2012 that there was insufficient evidence to show that she had suffered from domestic abuse for an extended time. Advocates for victims of such violence say it is often difficult to produce evidence of abuse that takes place in the privacy of homes and when police refuse to take on such cases.
Those who supported Li Yan said she deserved some leniency because of the repeated verbal and physical abuses she suffered, and her sense of desperation after attempts to seek help from police and a government-run women's group were unsuccessful.
"In the struggle for human rights — and women's rights — in China, this decision will be remembered," said John Kamm, an American rights campaigner who runs the Dui Hua Foundation. "The oppressor has been put on notice. No more violence with impunity."