BEIJING – At first blush, the plight of former Chinese police official Zhao Liping might not win much sympathy.
When a court sentenced Zhao, who'd wielded enormous power over his fellow citizens, to death for murder and corruption, state media hailed the ruling as evidence of equality before the law. Reports called it a milestone in the country's crackdown on misbehaving officials.
Yet Zhao's brother is now questioning the verdict, saying the ex-official was abused in police custody and sentenced in a show trial — raising issues of justice that are rarely aired in politically sensitive, often tightly scripted cases.
"They want to execute my brother based on evidence that is too problematic," Zhao Yifeng, a history professor at a university in the eastern city of Changchun, told The Associated Press.
Zhao, who had enjoyed broad powers as head of public security in the northern Chinese region of Inner Mongolia, was sentenced to death in November for murder, accepting bribes and the possession of firearms. Zhao, who has denied the charges, appealed the sentence. The appeal was rejected by a higher court in Shanxi province in February.
China's highest court, the Supreme People's Court, is now reviewing his death sentence, as it does for all capital punishment cases.
Zhao's brother has written a detailed letter appealing for a fair trial and submitted it to the court through its "letters and petitions" department, the office that is designated to hear citizens' complaints.
"This concerns my brother's life and whether the facts of this case have been made clear," Zhao Yifeng said in a recent interview. Equally important, he added, "It also concerns how the country's current judicial system is actually functioning."
The case has drawn a high level of public interest because Zhao is the first ministerial-level official to be sentenced to death in President Xi Jinping's hallmark crackdown on corruption that started in late 2012.
Zhao, now 66, was found guilty of murdering a 27-year-old woman said to have had an "intimate relationship" with him by shooting her on March 20, 2015, in the Inner Mongolian city of Chifeng, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) northeast of Beijing. Chinese media reports said Zhao had burned and buried the body of his mistress, identified only by her surname, Li, outside the city. They speculated that Zhao feared Li would expose him for some unspecified corruption.
The court also said Zhao, who rose through the ranks of the police in the sparsely populated but resource-rich region over a three-decade career, used his leadership position from 2008 to 2010 to "seek benefits" when promoting people and taking 24 million yuan ($3.5 million) in bribes. He was also convicted of illegally owning guns, bullets and detonators.
Zhao's brother disputes only the murder charge, saying he does not know enough about the other charges to challenge the prosecution's arguments. He also points to violations of due process in the overall handling of the case.
Zhao Yifeng said his brother was denied access to a lawyer in his first six months of custody despite his and his family's attempts to hire one for him.
Interrogators used torture to extort a confession from Zhao, his brother said, citing a lawyer's record from reviewing the prosecution's case files and an interrogation video. In one session, Zhao was put through 22 hours of questioning with his chest, arms and legs strapped and cuffed to a chair in order to immobilize him, kept awake throughout and denied medication for a heart condition, according to his brother.
Even after two years, Zhao has deep scars on his wrists, his brother said. He cites his brother as saying in court that the injuries were inflicted by interrogators who pressed down hard on his handcuffed wrists. In photos Zhao's brother hopes to submit to China's highest court, the former official is seen in a prison uniform extending his scarred wrists before him.
He also says the courts ignored serious flaws in the prosecution's argument, including that none of the prosecution's three key witnesses identified Zhao as the killer in a police lineup.
Zhao's defense lawyers raised these issues in their arguments. Yet, his brother says, they don't appear to have figured into the verdict, issued just days after the trial.
"This is a terrible thing, because what then is the point of the trial? It's all just a big performance," Zhao Yifeng said.
The Supreme People's Court, the two courts in Shanxi province where the case was tried, and police and prosecutors in Chifeng, where Zhao was interrogated, did not respond to repeated requests for comment sent by fax and phone.
Zhao's appeal comes amid greater scrutiny of complaints of police abuse in China and problems with its judicial system, where courts have a 99 percent conviction rate — one of the highest in the world.
Maya Wang, a researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, said it wouldn't be surprising if Zhao had been tortured while in police custody.
"The government doesn't give any statistics on the use of torture, but it is striking that such fate can befall almost anyone in China — whether we're talking about powerful former government officials or petty thieves," Wang said.
In recent months, Chinese activists have been drawing attention to the plight of a rights lawyer, Xie Yang, who told his attorneys that he had been subjected to sleep deprivation, punched, kicked and otherwise tortured during interrogations. Xie has been held since July 2015 in a crackdown on legal activism.
Interrogators find it easy to sidestep government requirements aimed at curbing abuse because the police, prosecutors and judiciary are ultimately controlled by the Communist Party. "They are required to work together to send suspects to jail, while the defense lawyer and the suspect have few rights and little power," Wang said.
Yet public pressure to curb abuses has grown following a string of wrongful convictions that recently came to light. China's highest court has pledged to do more to prevent the use of torture to obtain confessions, requiring interrogations to be videotaped, for example.
But while the torture of ordinary people in police custody might trigger an outcry, there is little public sympathy for officials subjected to the same practices, part of a widespread perception that officials enjoy better treatment by police than ordinary suspects.
The Supreme People's Court's verdict on Zhao's sentence is expected within weeks.
In the meantime, Zhao Yifeng has been traveling regularly to Beijing seeking to win his brother a retrial.
Sitting in his hotel room in Beijing, Zhao recalled how he and his older brother had been close as children but drifted apart in their adult years, separated by distance as well as differing views.
"I'm an academic and more of a liberal, which is unlike him," he said. "But if I could live this life again, I would stop my brother from getting into politics."