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Damming Verdicts

Following new legal guidance that toughens sentences for child abusers, people are calling for judgments to be reassessed after a principal of a special needs school, convicted of abusing his students, is believed to have been sentenced too lightly

By Wu Jin Updated Sept.1

Over the last four years, students at a school for the disabled in Sui County, northern Hubei Province, had sometimes heard girls moan and cry through the wall separating their music room from their principal’s office, The Beijing News reported on June 15.  

Behind the locked door, founder and principal Liu Aiye, 57, who had a reputation online for being a philanthropist who would enroll students for free at the school he established, Boai Special Education School – Boai means “universal love” – preyed on his disabled female students. The school mainly enrolled visually impaired students or those with mental disabilities.  

His abuse echoes the plot of the South Korean movie Silenced that premiered in 2011, called The Cruciblein Korean. The movie was based on a book of the same name published in 2009 that looked at the real-life case of six teachers who had sexually abused at least nine students at a school for the deaf in Gwangju, South Korea, according to a 2005 investigation.  

The perpetrators portrayed in the movie received no punishment until the release of the film, when authorities were forced to revisit the case after widespread protests by parents and a public outcry.  

Liu was sentenced by Sui County People’s Court at the end of 2022 to three and a half years in prison for molesting students and was given a lifetime ban on working with minors. Parents and victims accused the court of being much too lenient.  

Chen Jun, the elder cousin of victim Chen Sisi, posted on social media claims that she had been sexually assaulted and raped, and that she was not the only victim in the school. He alleged the court did not inform them when Liu stood trial, and the cousin’s appeal of the first verdict was denied a week after he filed it.  

On June 17, a day after Chen Jun’s post, Sui County court issued a statement promising to review the case in the wake of new guidance on sexual assault involving minors, published by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP), the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), and the ministries of Justice and Public Security on June 1, Children’s Day. The Guidance on Criminal Cases Concerning Sexual Assaults on Minors clarifies legal provisions and improves and toughens law enforcement for convicted abusers. But when NewsChina phoned Sui County court, it would not elaborate on the case, or discuss whether the new June 1 guidance would inform their review. 

The new guidance allows courts at all levels to follow more clear-cut guidelines in their sentencing of convicted molesters and rapists, who, according to He Ting, deputy dean of the Law School of the Beijing Normal University, should be punished stringently, given the devastating impact they have on young lives.  

“Despite improving laws and policies for the protection of minors, there are lots of complicated problems concerning how the rights of minors who are threatened or subjected to sexual assaults are upheld,” Tong Lihua, director of Beijing Children’s Legal Aid and Research Center, told NewsChina in June. “Some of them will live in constant humiliation, trepidation and desperation.” 

Counting the Years 
According to China’s Criminal Law, those convicted in serious cases of indecent or sexual assault should face severe penalties. However, prior to the new judicial guidance, the term “serious circumstances” is too broad to reach consistent verdicts, Luo Xiang, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, wrote for NewsChina in June. Citing some case examples, Luo said that in northwestern China, a perpetrator surnamed Huo was sentenced to 14 years in prison for multiple counts of sexual abuse of a girl over the span of a decade, whereas a father in an eastern region got only five and a half years for abusing his daughter for nine years.  

The new judicial interpretation specifies what constitutes “serious circumstances.” Courts may impose a penalty for raping a severely disabled or mentally impaired person under 14 of more than 10 years in jail up to a life sentence, or the death penalty. A perpetrator who molests minors multiple times or in public places, or whose abuse caused physical or psychological disorders or suicide, can be jailed for more than five years.  

After the new guidance was issued, the families of Liu Aiye’s victims, legal experts and members of the public criticized Sui County court’s sentence for being far too light.  

During Liu’s trial, the agent ad litem (official legal representative of a minor victim) of Chen Sisi said that Liu had allegedly raped Chen multiple times. According to Chen’s statement to the court, Liu first sexually assaulted her in 2018 when she was 13, a month before her 14th birthday.  

Visually impaired Chen Sisi, whose mother died when she was three, was admitted to the Boai Special Education School which her cousin, Chen Jun, believed was suited to Chen’s needs after having been impressed by media reports online.  

But in 2022, he was appalled when Chen Sisi told him that Liu had been raping her since 2018. Chen Jun tried to gather evidence, giving his cousin a smartwatch in May with instructions to start recording if Liu tried to molest her. Though she was unable to record Liu, police found DNA belonging to him on Chen Sisi’s bra after Chen Jun reported the alleged abuse, The Beijing News reported.  

Liu was detained on May 18, 2022 and formally charged a month later.  

Chen Sisi was not alone. Her schoolmates Zhou Xiaoruo and Zhang Yangyang, both mentally disabled, also accused Liu of sexual assault. According to Zhou’s agent ad litem, she was raped several times. But the court threw out the rape charge, citing a lack of evidence, and reduced Liu’s sentence. 

Tougher Approach 
Liu’s sentence was handed down despite the increased public outcry and legal crackdown against the rise of sexual molestation and assaults on minors over the past few years.  

According to the SPP’s website, which gives examples of previous cases but with many details obscured to protect the victims’ privacy, under the previous law, the Supreme People’s Court sentenced a school principal surnamed Qi to life in prison for molesting and raping girls in classrooms and his office. The verdict following an appeal by prosecutors was much heavier than the 10-year sentence given by the local court.  

In another case the SPP cited, on February 14, Shanghai Jiading People’s Court sentenced a man surnamed Zhang to 12 years in prison for child abuse. Zhang was a repeat offender, released from jail in January 2020 on similar charges.  

Zhang appealed, believing that as he had not physically abused minors, but had enticed girls aged 9-11 to send intimate photos, he should not be punished. Shanghai Second Intermediate People’s Court upheld the sentence, saying that it was his second offense, and it was severe abuse of the minors’ mental health and self-esteem.  

In Liu’s case, regardless of how sincere his confession was according to the local court, the headmaster should have been punished more severely in line with the laws formulated to protect minors, experts argued.  

“A reasonable penalty should be from 5-15 years in prison,” Wan Miaoyan, a lawyer in Sichuan Province, told news website Chengdu.cn. Lawyer Hou Shizhao from Hebei Province agreed that a harsh penalty is necessary because the crimes Liu committed definitely come under the umbrella of “serious circumstances” stipulated by the law.  

The public joined the debate. “I can’t begin to vent my anger when the man hasn’t been sentenced to at least 10 years in prison,” netizen “Gao Jian” commented on Chengdu.cn on June 20.  

However, according to the Sui County People’s Court, hard evidence was necessary to charge Liu with rape. An anonymous court staffer told NewsChina on July 3 that the investigation is ongoing, but declined to give a timeline for new announcements on the case.  

In 2022, 36,957 perpetrators were prosecuted for the molestation or sexual assault of minors, a surge of 20.4 percent year-on-year, according to the annual white paper issued by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate on June 1. The sharp rise is partly because of people’s growing awareness of legal protection, under which more parents want to bring alleged perpetrators to trial.  

It is also partly because of the compulsory report system launched in 2020, where public organizations including hospitals, schools, village committees and social welfare institutes are obliged to call police if minors are found to have been subjected to domestic violence, abduction or abandonment, or involved in pregnancy and abortion, He Ting told NewsChina.  

In 2022, the number of compulsory reports grew to 160 percent of the total previous cases combined. The most searched case was related to a girl from Siyang County, Suqian, Jiangsu Province. While she was visiting a local hospital, the doctors there found she might have been raped. Police arrested the perpetrator, surnamed Liu, who was sentenced to 12 years. The hospital was able to collect evidence of the rape.  

Despite the progress, many cases have yet to surface, Wang Dawei, criminal psychologist and professor at the People’s Public Security University in Beijing, told news website Workercn.cn in an interview on June 19.  

“Many minors are too young to understand the offenses when they are sexually abused by perpetrators who could be their teachers or relatives,” Tong said. “Some victims don’t understand the seriousness of the crime, while others are too scared to speak up.”  

According to Tong, in many families, sexual assault is taboo and should not be spoken of to anyone, much less to police. Despite searching for legal help, some parents may victim blame, accusing their children of recklessness or overreaction.  

In China, sex education in schools remains a sensitive topic opposed by some parents. Since curriculums change often, social organizations work steadily to raise awareness among minors, especially those living with extended family in landlocked rural areas, hoping they can protect themselves from sexual assault through the knowledge they have learned.  

Among those who call the police, some must face repeated interrogations and multiple physical examinations, forcing victims to recount their trauma over and over, especially in front of unsympathetic officials. Sometimes, when the evidence is not clear-cut, police refuse to charge the alleged abusers or the case falls apart in court. 

Wounds to Heal 
Specialist child lawyer Tong Lihua said that a young girl was asked to undergo three invasive forensic exams in a sexual assault case to appease three different departments. Occasionally, with confidential information being leaked during the legal process, victims and their families suffer from neighborhood gossip, Tong told NewsChina, saying “that the law enforcement process can hurt the young victims a second time if it is done unprofessionally.”  

“We need the coordination of professional lawyers, especially those focusing on the protection of minors, social workers and psychologists in an intermediate system to address the underlying problems,” he said.  

The June 1 guidance states that questioning young victims should be conducted only once, in a gentle way, and that their legal representatives must be present, or other appropriate advocate. If the victim is female, at least one female officer must be present.  

Sichuan lawyer Wan Miaoyan suggested that law enforcement officers should be more patient when speaking with minors, especially if they have special needs. “In many criminal cases, victims who are mentally disabled are often described as speaking incoherently and inarticulately, which makes it difficult to proceed with the investigation,” Wan said. “But as long as the young victims can recognize, recall and express what they underwent in a stable physical and mental state, police and legal practitioners should be patient enough to parse out useful information from their answers and testimonies.”  

Over a decade ago, the film Silenced ended with the perpetrators evading justice. But its release ignited nationwide protests and media coverage, which pressured South Korean officials to amend national laws on sexual assault and social welfare, subjecting philanthropic causes to toughened supervision. More importantly, the school was eventually shut down.  

In China, Boai Special Education School had its license revoked and was closed. However, families of the disabled girls are still awaiting justice as well as social care. According to Chen Jun, the local government has yet to offer any assistance such as counseling for the girls, including his cousin. But according to the new guidance, courts, prosecutors and police should prioritize assistance provided to minors living in difficult circumstance or who are awaiting compensation after being assaulted.  

“Since the darkness of human nature has no end, we must endeavor to leverage laws against it in countless confrontations, especially when protecting our younger generations who carry the torch of hope to illuminate our future,” wrote Professor Luo in his article.

A poster for South Korean film Silenced