SAN FRANCISCO (June 23, 2014) — In a landmark ruling with far-reaching implications for survivors of domestic violence, China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC) has overturned the death sentence of Li Yan (李彦), a 43-year-old woman who killed her husband in November 2010. The case has been sent back to the Sichuan High People’s Court for retrial.

The news comes more than a year after the SPC reportedly approved the death sentence issued by Sichuan Province’s Zhiyang Intermediate People’s Court, which said there was insufficient evidence of spousal abuse.

Death sentences are usually carried out within a few days of SPC approval, but stay of execution is possible if there is believed to be an error in the judgment.

China’s judiciary has been paying increased attention to domestic violence in recent years. By January 2013, the SPC had created a domestic violence task force to consider the issue of domestic violence in criminal cases. In February 2014, the court held a press conference to announce that domestic violence occurs in one in four Chinese households, and one in 10 homicides are the result of domestic violence.

SPC officials attended an international symposium on women in prison organized by The Dui Hua Foundation and other partners in Hong Kong in late February. The issue of domestic violence as a cause and consequence of women’s incarceration was examined at the symposium, which also focused on the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules). In their preliminary observations, the Bangkok Rules state that “violence against women has specific implications for women’s contact with the criminal justice system.” Rule 61 states that “when sentencing women offenders, courts shall have the power to consider mitigating factors such as lack of criminal history and relative non-severity and nature of the criminal conduct, in light of women’s caretaking responsibilities and typical backgrounds.” In 2009, the Hunan High People’s Court opined that domestic violence should be a mitigating factor in the sentencing of women who fight violence with violence.

Li Yan’s case was the subject of intense domestic and international interest. More than 400 Chinese lawyers and scholars called on the SPC to commute her death sentence. International human rights organizations also urged clemency.

Li Yan married Tan Yong, a man who boasted of abusing his three previous wives, in 2009. For months she suffered horrific abuse at Tan Yong’s hands. Tan kicked and beat her, stubbed out lit cigarettes on her face, locked her in a room without food, kept her outside on a balcony in frigid winter temperatures, and cut off part of her finger. Despite pleas to the police and local authorities, no action was taken to stop the abuse. When Tan Yong came after Li Yan with the butt of an air gun in November 2010, she wrestled it away from him and beat him to death.

“The court has sent a powerful message to those who brutalize their spouses that histories of abuse are grounds for clemency. The ruling moves forward the day when the National People’s Congress passes a comprehensive law on domestic violence. It will also likely help reduce the number of executions in China,” John Kamm, executive director of The Dui Hua Foundation, said.