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Sentenced reduced in Amanda Zhao murder

A man convicted of murdering his girlfriend Amanda Zhao in Burnaby 12 years ago has had his sentence reduced by China's highest court.

A man convicted of murdering his girlfriend in Burnaby a dozen years ago has had his sentence reduced by China's highest court.

Amanda Zhao, 20, was an Coquitlam College exchange student from China living in a North Burnaby basement suite with her boyfriend Ang Li when she was killed in October 2002.

Li, who has since changed his name to Jia-ming Li, fled to China two days after her body was found stuffed in a suitcase in the woods around Stave Lake near Mission.

It wasn't until 2009 that he was arrested and September 2012 that a Chinese court found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in prison.

But Li appealed and this week the conviction was reduced to manslaughter and the sentence cut to seven years. As he's been in prison since 2009, he would be freed in two years.

While the first court ruling made Zhao's family feel the law was "fair and just," the latest judgment by the Beijing High Peoples Court is "unacceptable," said Bao-ying Yang, Zhao's mother, in a statement Monday.

"We neither understand nor accept the ruling. The ruling changes our opinion about the fairness of the law. The ruling abundantly represents that the law can be bought with power or money in China."

She thanked NDP MLAs Jenny Kwan and Mike Farnworth as well as advocate Gabriel Yiu, for their lobbying efforts.

Kwan said the high court ruled there was insufficient evidence to support a first-degree murder conviction, citing the fact Zhao and Li were a couple and Li's contention they were having a pillow fight that somehow led to her strangulation death.

It did, however, uphold the earlier ruling that Li owed Zhao's family the equivalent of $194,875 in compensation for her death.

It's not known whether he has the means to pay it, Kwan said.

• 10 years too long for a guilty verdict in Zhao murder: Kwan

She noted that while the court proceedings were closed to the public, Zhao's family noticed that a high-ranking Chinese military official was present. He was identified as the superior officer of Li's father, who is in the military.

The high court's decisions are also usually made one to two months after hearings, but in this case the decision took almost two years. As time passed, Zhao's family became "increasingly worried about the outcome," said Kwan.

Zhao's mother also said in her statement, "We have no choice but to question the law in China. We will not stand by waiting for them to undermine the law in China. We will continue our very long and arduous journey of pursuing justice."

But Kwan isn't sure there's anything else the family can do to achieve closure on their daughter's death.

They live on a low income and both parents are elderly and aren't in the best of health. A relative told Kwan "she feared that the trauma of this final outcome would also impact their health even further."

Kwan said she was "quite taken aback" by the latest verdict. "As a mom, I've got to tell you, gosh I don't know what I would have done if it was my daughter who was murdered in such a manner."

There were times over the years when Zhao's parents felt complete hopelessness at ever achieving justice.

"I really empathize with them," she said. "To say that it's devastating I think doesn't even describe it accurately for the family."

When Kwan started her lobbying efforts six years ago, "my goal was to make sure the family had their day in court … And I think we achieved that."

So while the second decision is "absolutely disappointing," the Canadian officials' work has set a precedent for how similar cases could be handled in future, Kwan noted.

Li, like Zhao, was an exchange student. He reported Zhao missing to police, claiming she didn't return from a trip to the grocery store. Her body was found 11 days later.

While he soon became a suspect, RCMP didn't have enough evidence to detain him before he fled the country. China has no extradition treaty with Canada. That led to several years of federal and provincial officials meeting with Chinese officials before an agreement was struck. China would waive the death penalty if Li was convicted, and the RCMP would share its evidence to allow the prosecution to take place in that country.

"I think in this instance Ang Li thought he got away with murder, that he was never going to be tried," said Kwan. "But he was tried."