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In China, Going Home After 23 Years Of Wrongful Imprisonment

Chen Man's release from prison has historical significance, writes Liang Yingfei.

Inside a prison in Macau, China
Inside a prison in Macau, China
Liang Yingfei

MIANZHU — As Chen Man returns home from prison, freedom is no longer a mirage, it's more like a soft mist, invisible but real. At seven in the morning, he will go to the local market to do his food shopping. On the way home, he will buy a fresh bunch of gardenias. When it feels a bit chilly, he can stretch out in the sun. All these thoughts remind Man that, after 23 years behind bars, he is finally free.

In 1988, Man gave up a steady job working for the local government in his hometown Mianzhu, a small city in China's southwestern Sichuan province, to seek his fortune with some friends in booming Hainan, China's southernmost island.

Man's parents are intellectuals. His father is a scientific researcher and his mother worked for a hospital. As honest and meticulous as he was, with an upbeat demeanor, Man was not the sort of person anyone could ever imagine being wrongfully imprisoned.

In the exasperated words of his mother, "He couldn't even kill a chicken, let alone a person!"

Yet in 1992, police accused Man of murder and arson after those crimes were committed in the apartment he had rented in Hainan. In 1994, in spite of a lack of evidence, Man's repeated insistence that his confessions were obtained under torture, and proof of his alibi on the night in question, he was sentenced to death with reprieve. In China, this form of punishment commutes death row inmates' sentences to imprisonment if they commit no further crimes in two years after their day in court.

Man's parents fought long and hard to appeal for their son. Convinced of his innocence, they tried to help him in all sorts of ways: by making inquiries and researching the facts of the case, searching for expert advice, hiring lawyers, and by sending letters to various courts, the Procurator-General of the Supreme People's Procuratorate, and all relevant political and legal committees every month. These appeal letters were all fruitless. At every level, the Chinese legal system rejected their pleas.

It was only in 2004 that Cheng Shirong, a former colleague of Man's father, researched Man's case and became convinced that there had been a miscarriage of justice. He decided to take over Man's elderly parents' heavy burden with the courts.

It took many more years of twists and turns before in 2013, the case finally reached a turning point as the story came to the attention of the "Grievance Relief Network," a volunteer group composed of lawyers, forensic investigators and journalists. They convened with other legal experts and organized an investigative seminar in Beijing, in addition to launching letters of appeal to the relevant judicial authorities on Man's behalf.

At last, in 2015, the Procurator-General finally lodged a complaint with the Supreme Court, and on February 1, 2016, the Zhejiang High People's Court finally pronounced Man's innocence.

Over the past three months, Mianzhu, a small town at the edge of Chengdu, has suddenly been flooded with journalists from all over the country. This is the first time since the founding of the People's Republic of China that the Procurator-General's demand for a retrial led to the accused's release from prison. Thus, the "Chen Man case" has important historical significance.

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In Hong Kong, China — Photo: Sarah Joy

Meanwhile, Man is seeking peace of mind amidst all the hustle and bustle. There are so many things he must learn. He bought a laptop computer, but still can't manage a simple operation such as cutting and pasting text. He had to re-learn his way walking home: After 23 years, the fields around his parent's house had turned into blocks of buildings. Man is also trying to fix the tape recorder his parents have kept for him all these years, so he can play his collection of dozens of cassettes, since no technician is capable of or interested in repairing this museum piece anymore.

The array of new things dazzles Man, who is nevertheless motivated to learn. His bedside is stacked with books about Chinese culture and how to succeed.

In the last few days, news that Man has received state reparations totaling 2.75 million yuan (about $41,811,135 at current exchange) has once again propelled him into the media spotlight. As he walks down the street, passers-by whisper, recognizing him as "the guy who got 2.75 million."

This new label has also attracted a lot of strangers to Man. Some offer him investment opportunities. A woman also called him up to say she'd "like to be his friend." When Man declined her proposal, expressing interest in a more natural meeting with someone he could get to know over time, the woman shouted at him over the phone, telling him to go to hell.

At this stage, Man has only an inkling of what his future might hold. His priority is to keep his parents company and to restore his health. He is now 53 years old, and his long and painful years in prison gave him chronic gastritis, gallstones, colitis, hemorrhoids, and numbness in his legs and feet.

His parents are both over 80 and belong to the older generation of intellectuals known for their tenacity. But after decades of fighting injustice, they suddenly felt physically and mentally exhausted when their son finally came home. Even a glimpse of a news report about their son reminds them of the agony they experienced for years. Man's mother, who used to be so patient in answering journalists' questions, collapsed in a recent interview, saying that she no longer wishes to remember this unbearable ordeal.

That justice arrived so late is the family's greatest regret.

Contrary to what has appeared in some press reports, Man is not seeking to receive higher compensation or punish those responsible for his wrongful imprisonment. These are more other people's wishes than his own, he says. All he wants is to look ahead and start a second life. There is no time to waste.

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