A Chinese farmer has been sentenced to life in prison for avoiding highway tolls adding up to more than 3.5 million yuan ($530,000).

State media this week reported that a court in the central province of Henan sentenced Shi Jianfeng on December 21 for fraud. He was also fined two million yuan ($302,000).

The news caused an uproar among some Chinese, who argued in online postings and commentaries that shorter sentences have been given out for the more serious crimes of rape or murder.

The outcry was so loud that the Intermediate People’s Court in the city of Pingdingshan held a news conference this week to defend its decision.

A report in the People’s Daily newspaper said Shi avoided paying tolls more than 2,300 times by using fake military license plates between May 2008 and January 2009 as he ran a business transporting gravel with his two vans.

Military vehicles don’t have to pay highway tolls.

The People’s Daily report cited prosecutors in the city of Pingdingshan.

With China’s state media tightly controlled by the government, some citizens pounce on stories that they feel illustrate injustice.

In this case, their complaints strayed beyond Shi’s case to popular complaints that highway toll fees are too high, especially for a farmer.

One legal expert said the severity of the sentence in Shi’s case comes from the fact that he faked military items, including uniforms.

“Based on the explanation, the court certainly can hand down such a sentence,” Qu Xinjiu, a law professor at China University of Political Sciences and Law, was quoted as saying by the English-language Global Times newspaper this week.

Other legal experts told state media they did not expect Shi would be able to pay his large fine.

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