A Chinese court has jailed six people in a high-profile human trafficking case of a woman found chained in a remote village last year.
The case horrified the country and led to a crackdown on bride trafficking.
The woman’s husband was jailed for nine years for torture, abuse and keeping her captive. Five others received terms ranging from eight to 13 years.
But many reacting to the verdict on Friday said the sentences were too small and reforms were still lacking.
Xiaohuamei’s plight came to public attention in January 2022 when a Chinese vlogger found her living in a dirt-floor hut outside her family home in the village in Xuzhou province, with an iron chain around her neck.
The vlogger’s video from Fengxian County went viral. In it, he voiced trafficking concerns and noted that Xiaohuamei, in her 40s, had reportedly had eight children and appeared “dazed” and mentally incapacitated.
The case seized the attention of the Chinese public, many of whom campaigned relentlessly online for justice for the woman.
At first, the local town authorities dismissed trafficking concerns – saying the couple had a legitimate marriage certificate and they just had marital troubles.
Authorities also repeated her husband Dong Zhimin’s defence that he had locked up Xiaohuamei because she had schizophrenia and was prone to violent fits.
However, such statements only fuelled public outrage.
It sharpened criticism voiced by many online that authorities had turned a blind eye to the woman’s treatment and potentially to that of other trafficking victims.
It led to a criminal investigation and pledges from police to crack down on the trafficking of women and children.
Many details of the case were confirmed for the first time this week, at the trial.
The court determined that Xiaohuamei as a teenager had been abducted from her home province of Yunnan in 1998 and sold to a farmer in Donghai province for 5,000 yuan – about £360 or $600 at the time.
A year later she was sold again to more traffickers, this time a couple, who arranged her sale to Dong’s father.
The judges said that when she first arrived at Dong’s house, Xiaohuamei had been “basically able to take care of herself and communicate with others”.
The court found Dong guilty of torturing and abusing his wife. He forced Xiaohuamei to have children – the first in 1999 and then seven more from 2011 to 2020.
After her third child, Xiao’s schizophrenia worsened. In response, Dong grew more abusive, said the Intermediate People’s Court of Xuzhou City in Jiangsu province.
In 2017, he moved her out of the family home into the outdoor hut, where he kept her tied up with cloth ropes and chains. The hut had no water, electricity or light and often she was denied meals.
Yao Hui, the presiding judge, said Dong had never taken his wife to the doctors when she was sick and had repeatedly made her pregnant regardless of her condition.
On Friday, the news of the verdicts shot to the top of the social media platform Weibo, where it received over 100 million hits within the first hour of the verdict.
The majority of users expressed anger and disappointment over the sentences. “Just this much for ruining someone’s life?” one user wrote.
Comments from others included “It’s her whole life, but just nine years for him” and “Nine years isn’t enough time for her to give birth eight times”.
However, others pointed out how sentences for trafficking crimes are typically capped at 10 years.
Activists last year had been pushing for legal reform, arguing such light sentences posed no deterrence to the bridal market of traffickers and buyers.
“Amend the law, the sentence is too light,” one user wrote in Friday’s online discussion.
Some also asked about Xiaohuamei’s current condition. She was removed from her village last year after her case became known and taken to a medical ward where she remains, Chinese media said.