A 10-YEAR jail sentence and 20,000 yuan (US$3,148) fine imposed on a domestic helper who stole a cell phone from her employer in revenge for her delayed wages has sparked heated debates across China.
A court in Henan Province ruled that the sentence was justified based on the value of the phone - a 68,000 yuan Nokia Vertu.
The incident happened on December 2 last year when Zhang Yun, a 48-year-old domestic helper, found a silver cell phone in a wardrobe in her employer's apartment in the provincial capital city of Zhengzhou, Henan news portal Dahe.cn reported.
Lawyers and many members of the public said the sentence was too harsh on a woman who said she didn't know the value of the phone and stole it only because her employer had delayed her wages. A number of lawyers are offering free legal support for Zhang to appeal the sentence.
"I've been working for the family for over 40 days but my employer was still delaying my payment, I got angry and decided to hide the cell phone in the kitchen so I could use it myself," Zhang told the court.
But soon afterward, her employer, a man surnamed Su, found his cell phone missing. Zhang told him she hadn't seen the phone but then secretly buried it in a turnip pit, the website said.
Su called the police who later saw Zhang taking the cell phone from the pit via the complex's surveillance cameras. Su showed police an invoice proving that he had paid 68,000 yuan for the phone.
"I didn't know the cell phone was so expensive," Zhang told the court. "I don't know anything about the law and I thought the cell phone was only worth one or two thousand yuan to make up for my salary."
She added: "I was going to return the phone whenever he paid me."
The court said Zhang was guilty of theft and because the item was of great value she would be sent to prison for 10 years and be fined 20,000 yuan.
On Weibo.com, a microblogger wrote: "I hate theft but in this case I hate the employer more as he is rich enough to use such a luxury cell phone while delaying the payment to a domestic helper."
Another comment was: "The court is apparently catering to the rich while turning its back on the poor. The domestic helper should be punished for the crime but why 10 years? She didn't eat the phone but it was returned to the rich man."
Zhang Wei, a Henan lawyer, told Dahe.cn that he believed the sentence was too harsh as the phone was not worth 68,000 yuan after being used for a period of time. The fact that the woman was from a farming family who didn't know the phone's value should have swayed the court's decision.
Zhang compared the case with the one in 2003 where several migrant workers were facing lengthy sentences for stealing 20 kilograms of grapes planted in a Beijing research center as the grapes were said to be worth more than 1.1 million yuan.
But after arguments in court, the grapes were revalued at 376 yuan, and the migrant workers escaped theft charges.
Zhang told the website he was willing to provide legal support for an appeal.
Meanwhile, more than 10 other lawyers are also volunteering to help after Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, began a microblog campaign in support of the woman.
"I want to offer help to the poor domestic helper and I also want to curse the employer who uses a luxury phone but delays paying her salary," Yu said.