A Chinese court on Friday acquitted a death-row inmate who spent eight years behind bars for double murder in a high-profile case that observers say may be a rare exception in a court system riddled with wrongful convictions.

A Chinese court on Friday acquitted a death-row inmate who spent eight years behind bars for double murder in a high-profile case that observers say may be a rare exception in a court system riddled with wrongful convictions.

Citing insufficient evidence, the high court of the southeastern province of Fujian overturned the guilty verdict against Nian Bin, a grocery shop owner accused of fatally poisoning a fellow villager’s two children in 2006.

“As far as we can tell, this is an isolated case, but we hope this will help China move forward — even with a small step — in building rule of law,” Beijing-based legal scholar Xu Xin said. “We should thank his lawyers and their unrelenting efforts for the acquittal. The social media also have played a role, having put pressure on the court to hear the case fairly.”

Nian was immediately freed after the announcement. The 38-year-old man met his family in a tearful reunion, according to photos posted on social media by supporters and his lawyers. Nian had repeatedly appealed his guilty verdict, with lawyers saying he was tortured into confessing to the crime.

In overturning the guilty verdict, the Fujian provincial high court said the prosecution had conflicting evidence, lacked proof that the victims died from rat poison and failed to adequately trace the origin of the poison. Xu said the defense team was able to successfully prove that some evidence was false and concocted by police.

Critics say political pressure to solve homicide cases often leads to wrongful convictions based on coerced confessions and fabricated evidence in China’s heavily controlled judiciary system, where courts lack judiciary independence to correct wrongs. Some wrongful convictions have been overturned only when victims, presumed dead, turned up alive.

“The system keeps producing wrongful cases, and the courts — lower in the hierarchy — cannot rule independently,” Xu said.

In an open letter, Nian’s lawyers thanked the Fujian court for withstanding pressure to maintain the guilty verdict and credited Beijing and the country’s supreme court for efforts to uphold judiciary justice and rectify wrongful cases.

Nian’s case has attracted some of China’s most prominent lawyers and wide attention in social media that put the local courts on the spot.

“It’s a case of life and death, and the high court had little wriggling room when members of the public were watching closely,” said Shanghai-based legal scholar Zhang Xuezhong, who warned against viewing the rare acquittal as progress in China’s judiciary independence and rule of law.

Zhang said it was troublesome that the trial court convicted Nian two more times even after higher courts cast doubt on the case, adding that the supreme court’s authority to review death sentences worked out in Nian’s favor.

Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the acquittal is likely to be unprecedented.

But noting the court’s reluctance to review Nian’s torture allegations, Wang said it is too early to say if the acquittal signaled any judiciary improvement.

“It took much concerted efforts by some of China’s best-known rights lawyers to get the current court to acknowledge that there is insufficient evidence,” Wang said. “The true test of progress is how the judiciary will handle the aftermath of Nian’s acquittal: Will it hold the police officers who tortured Nian accountable?”