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China bolsters rule of law and frees man after 23 years in prison

A Chinese man has been released after decades in prison for a fatal arson attack he did not commit. The man's release is the latest in a string of convictions overturned by the courts.

Longtime inmate Chen Man was set free Monday after the high court in China's eastern Zheijang province found a "lack of evidence" in his case.

Now in his 50s, Man was arrested in 1992 and charged over a deadly arson attack in which a house burned down, killing a man inside. He was later given a suspended death sentence.

The Chinese government has recently tried to improve the way courts handle criminal cases as part of President Xi Jinping's efforts to bolster the rule of law and increase public confidence in the criminal justice system.

Domestic critics and human rights groups alike

have long complained of gross miscarriages of justice

in China, where forced confessions are widespread and more than 99 percent of defendants are convicted.

But Chen's case attracted the attention of reform-minded judges. In April 2015, his appeal to the country's highest court was accepted and judges began reviewing his conviction.

Chen's original confessions were "inconsistent" over the course of his two trials, Judge Zhang Qin said in a Monday statement describing the ruling.

Convictions being overturned

Chen's case is noteworthy because of the length of time he had served. Others have not been as lucky, as exonerations are sometimes declared posthumously.

That was the case for an 18-year-old man named Hugjiltu, who was executed for rape and murder in 1996. But a court in the Inner Mongolia region declared him innocent in 2014.

This declaration of innocence - nine years after his death sentence - came after another man had confessed the crime. Some 27 officials have been "penalized" for Hugjiltu's wrongful execution, state news agency Xinhua reported late Sunday. But only one of these officials - a former deputy police chief - will be prosecuted while the others face administrative sanction.

Compensation over wrongful conviction

In another high profile case, a man who spent 11 years behind bars after being wrongly convicted of murder four times was freed last summer and paid about $200,000 (184,000 euros) in compensation.

Zeng Aiyun had been sentenced to die three times in trials between 2004 and 2010 over the murder of a graduate school classmate. State media later reported that an accomplice serving a life sentence had been solely responsible for the poisoning death but had managed to frame Zeng Aiyun.

As in the United States, wrongful executions have stirred widespread indignation in China, though capital punishment remains popular in both countries.

jar/rg (AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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