Gang members jailed in China for attacking women

HONG KONG — A court in China handed heavy fines to members of a gang who assaulted several women in a restaurant three months ago, shocking the country with its violence and reigniting debate over gender inequality.

According to a social media post by the Guangyang District Court in northern China’s Hebei province, seven members were found guilty of taking part in the attack and along with 21 others of committing a series of serious crimes over the past decade. They received prison sentences of between six months and 24 years, it said.

The prison sentences are expected to dampen the debate about the lack of protection for women’s rights that the attack sparked, although the court did not directly address the issue in its five-part account of the case and verdict. Under Chinese law, 25 years is the maximum penalty, barring life imprisonment or death. Other criminal activities by the gang since 2012 have included robberies, false imprisonment and running illegal casinos.

Despite the brutality of the attack, the four women suffered minor injuries, the court said. By convicting the perpetrators as part of a criminal gang and charging them with other crimes committed over the years, the court was able to impose sentences that would satisfy the public, lawyers said. However, due to the opaque nature of the investigation and trial, it was also unclear how much of each sentence was attributable to the restaurant attack and how much to the other offenses — or whether the jail terms were appropriate punishment for what each accused did had , you said.

“Court rulings are meant to provide guidance on social values,” said Wang Shengsheng, a criminal law attorney at the Guangdong Times law firm, adding that the ruling failed to alleviate the insecurity and fear of women in China.

Chinese officials have tried to steer public opinion about the nature of the attack, describing it as pure gang violence rather than a women’s rights issue, said Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Shifting public attention from gender-based violence to gang-related violence demonstrates Chinese officials’ ability to manipulate public opinion,” Ms Wang said before the verdict was released. “In the future, many may only remember gang violence.”

The case caused a sensation after a video circulated online on June 10 showing several men attacking a couple of women at a barbecue restaurant in Tangshan, Hebei province. In the CCTV footage, a man wearing a dark green jacket, later identified as 41-year-old Chen Jizhi, walks towards a table where three women were sitting. Mr. Chen was seen putting his hand on one of them, who was wearing a white T-shirt, and then pushed him away. Mr. Chen started attacking her and other women who came to her aid. His friends joined. The women were dragged to the ground where the men continued to beat them – the sound of heavy beatings could be heard on the video.

The video went viral, igniting public anger at gender inequality in the world’s second largest economy, where women’s place in society has not always kept pace with decades of growing prosperity. Earlier this year, footage showing a woman tied around the neck inside a shed in Jiangsu province, a relatively prosperous region in eastern China, shook the country. Authorities later confirmed that the mother of eight had been sold into marriage and arrested her husband.

When Hebei provincial authorities charged the 28 people as members of a criminal gang in August, they also said they were investigating whether local police provided protection to criminal groups.

Friday’s court ruling ordered the seven gang members involved in the attack to pay compensation, including medical costs and lost income.

The verdict received widespread applause on Chinese social media. A post of the news in state media received about 1.2 million likes by early afternoon.

write to Cao Li at li.cao@wsj.com and Liyan Qi at liyan.qi@wsj.com

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