Five men who were convicted of murder in Central China almost two decades ago have had their names cleared after a retrial because of unclear facts and insufficient evidence.
Zhou Jikun, Zhou Jiahua, Zhou Zaichun, Zhou Zhengguo and Zhou Zaihua broke down in tears upon receiving the verdict on Wednesday, the Anhui High People's Court, which heard the case, said in a statement.
The five men are not related, but came from a village where everyone has the same family name.
They were informed of their right to apply for compensation from the State for their wrongful convictions, which saw them serve between nine and 20 years behind bars.
The men were all detained in March 1997, six months after a brutal attack on a family in Dazhou village, Anhui province, which resulted in the death of Zhou Suhua and injuries to her parents, brother and sister.
The case was first heard in October 1998 in Fuyang Intermediate People's Court. The defendants refused to confess and said they had been tortured during police interrogations.
Yet they were convicted of homicide based on allegations presented by prosecutors. In March 1999, the court handed down a death sentence to Zhou Jikun and Zhou Jiahua; the other three sentences ranged from 15 years to life.
On appeal to a higher court the following July, the case was sent back to the intermediate court for retrial. Insufficient evidence was cited. The original verdict was upheld in February 2000, but the court reduced the punishment for Zhou Jikun and Zhou Jiahua to a suspended death sentence, which usually means life in prison.
Eight months later, when the higher court upheld the judgment, the five men began their lengthy appeals, and finally, in August, Anhui High People's Court held a retrial in which the defendants again proclaimed their innocence.
Wednesday's judgment notes that the five men's statements about the crime were inconsistent with testimony given by several surviving victims.
"The unclear facts and insufficient evidence fail to prove that these five people did the killing, so their convictions should be removed," the court said. It suggested that public security departments reinvestigate the case.
In January, Zhou Jikun was freed from prison after almost 21 years. He had served the longest time of the five. Zhou Jiahua and Zhou Zaichun completed their sentences in 2015 and 2016 respectively, while Zhou Zaihua and Zhou Zhengguo were released in 2008.