China's Supreme Court overturns death sentence for victim of domestic violence

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China's top court has overturned the death sentence of a woman convicted of killing her husband after years of violent abuse, her lawyer said on Tuesday, in a move activists say shows the government could be serious about battling domestic violence.

The landmark case of Li Yan, which was widely discussed on the Internet in China, highlights the plight of victims of domestic violence, and drew the attention of international human rights groups.

The decision "will have an exemplary effect" on similar future lawsuits, Li's lawyer, Guo Jianmei, told Reuters, as it may be the first case in China to overturn capital punishment for the killing of a domestic abuser.

"It means domestic violence cases, especially those in which violence is used to counter violence, will receive greater attention from various parties, especially the courts," said Mr Guo, a pro bono lawyer who specializes in women's rights.

Li's brother received a letter from her on Monday advising of the court's decision.

China's Supreme People's Court has ordered a higher court in the southwestern province of Sichuan to retry the case because of insufficient evidence and lack of clarity on some facts, Guo said.

The outcome of Li's retrial is hard to predict, but it is highly unlikely the Sichuan provincial court will sentence her to death again, Guo added.

Li, 43, was sentenced to death in 2012 for killing her husband Tan Yong. Mr Tan had physically, sexually and verbally abused Li for more than three years, burning her with cigarettes and cutting off one of her fingers, Mr Guo said.

Li beat her husband to death with an air gun after he threatened to shoot her. She then cut up his body and boiled the body parts, media reports said, perhaps in an effort to dispose of them, but the exact reason is still unclear.

Supporters say Li should not have been sentenced to death because the police and the first two courts did not take into consideration the abuse she had suffered.

The court's decision was "significant and the right course of action", said Mr William Nee, a China researcher at rights group Amnesty International.

"Li's case has shone a spotlight on the need for the Chinese authorities to do more to prevent violence against women," Mr Nee said in a statement.

Domestic violence pervades about a quarter of all Chinese families, and nearly a tenth of intentional homicide cases involved it, the Supreme People's Court said in February.

The decisions by China's supreme court effectively set examples and provide guidance to lower courts, especially in landmark cases.

China, which rights groups say executes more people than any other country in the world, is debating trimming the number of crimes subject to the death penalty.