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China's Capital Cases Still Secret, Arbitrary

The same month, Du Yimin, 43, owner of a beauty parlor in the eastern province of Zhejiang, was convicted of illegally collecting $100 million from the public for investment schemes that fell apart. The money involved in Du's case was less than 5 percent of that in Zhu's case. Her sentence: the death penalty.

"The difference between him and my sister is that she's only an ordinary citizen," said Du's brother, Du Jianmin, 44, an engineer in a local government construction bureau.

In other recent cases, defendants were executed on the basis of charges that involved even less stolen money.

In March, bank workers Ren Xiaofeng, 34, and Ma Xiangjing, 37 -- who purchased about $6.4 million in lottery tickets with money they took from their employer's vaults -- were executed in Hebei province. And in February 2007, Liu Jianghua, 31, a former accountant at the Agricultural Bank in Yunnan province, was executed for embezzling about $1.19 million that he spent mostly on online soccer gambling.

Meanwhile, public officials convicted of similar crimes often receive what is called "death with a two-year reprieve," or a suspended death sentence. In reality, with two years of good behavior, these sentences are commuted and convicts are allowed to leave prison on probation in as little as 14 years. They can also be released on bail for medical treatment at any time.

Du's case has triggered public outrage because of the contrast between her sentence and that of Shanghai government official Zhu. The two were sentenced one day apart. Du, who remains in wrist and ankle shackles in a government prison, is appealing.

As the story goes, Du's troubles began when she tried to expand her business beyond the beauty salon she owned in Lishui town in eastern China.

She had opened the salon in 1995 out of desperation. Her husband, whom she met while both were working at the same fertilizer factory, had abandoned her and their son. Du, who left school after junior high, was determined to provide a better life for her son and hoped to use profits from the salon for his college education. As the town became wealthier, so did she. From 2003 to 2006, she invited 67 families in the region to participate in a fund she had created to invest in real estate, cosmetics and mining. She raised more than $100 million and promised monthly interest of 1.8 to 10 percent, depending on the amount investors contributed.

Prosecutors accused her of tricking investors and spending the money in a shopping spree, buying apartments, cars, clothes, handbags and other luxury items. She asked investors to recruit other investors, they said, using the new money to pay back the earlier investors in a pyramid scheme that collapsed when the funds ran out and a bank loan she had applied for to keep the ruse going was denied.

The sentencing document said so much money was involved that there was "enormous social harm." Du's family says she was an honest if naive woman who made some bad investments. "She was so air-headed that she returned the money to some investors but she didn't even ask for a receipt back," Du's brother said.

Investors included the wives of public officials, who were customers at Du's upscale salon. Du's mother, Lu Suying, 71, said some powerful people wanted "to shut her up by death."

Circumstantial Evidence

Wo Weihan's case was the subject of intense lobbying last month by international diplomats, who angered China by saying that Wo had not had a fair trial.

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