A Chinese court announced Friday it will retry a farmer sentenced to life in prison for evading highway tolls after a massive public outcry over his heavy punishment.
The court in central Henan province had sentenced Shi Jianfeng to life imprisonment for fraud for avoiding highway tolls that added up to more than 3.68 million yuan ($560,000), the official Xinhua News Agency reported. He was also fined 2 million yuan ($302,000).
Shi mounted fake military license plates on his two trucks so they could avoid paying tolls more than 2,300 times between May 2008 and January 2009 when he ran a business transporting gravel. Military vehicles don’t have to pay highway tolls.
News of the verdict triggered an uproar among Chinese who argued in online postings and commentaries that shorter sentences were given out for the more serious crimes of rape or murder. The comments also strayed beyond Shi’s case to popular complaints that highway tolls are too high, especially for a farmer.
The public outrage was so loud that the court held a news conference this week to defend its decision.
On Friday, Liu Penghua, director of the political department of the Pingdingshan Municipal Intermediate People’s Court, said the court has ordered a retrial, adding that the verdict may change because the defendant has indicated he had accomplices, Xinhua said.
“Shi said during an inquiry Thursday night he was manipulated by a relative,” it quoted Liu as saying.
One legal expert said the severity of the sentence in Shi’s case came from the fact that he faked military items, including uniforms.
“Based on the explanation, the court certainly can hand down such a sentence,” Qu Xinjiu, a law professor at China University of Political Sciences and Law, was quoted as saying by the English-language Global Times newspaper this week.