Foreign media have been harassed and forced from the courthouse in Beijing, China where a leading anti-corruption activist was today sentenced to four years in jail for disturbing public order. In addition, the convicted activist’s lawyer was forced into a police van after he tried to address and talk to journalists who had been barred from the court.
Leading human rights activist Xu Zhiyong was tried on Wednesday, then convicted and sentenced today at Beijing’s No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court. The 40-year-old lawyer was charged with “gathering crowds” with the aim of disrupting “public order.” Founder of the forceful New Citizen’s Movement, he has been fighting for “rule of law” and a variety of human rights issues that relate to matters ranging from high-ranking officials’ assets to the education of migrant workers’ children.
There were scenes of chaos when Zhang Qingfang, Xu’s lawyer, wanted to address journalists waiting outside the court to hear the verdict earlier today. Claiming to be protecting him and maintaining order, police bundled him into a van and took him away. Western media with journalists on the scene reported that the authorities had “harassed foreign journalists” who tried to take photographs or talk to Zhang.
Zhang, the convicted activist’s lawyer, said later that members of the police who harassed the foreign media had driven him around until the crowd outside the court had dispersed. However, they were still continuing to monitor his movements. In his view, the entire proceedings of Xu’s court case are illegal, so if he and his client decided to appeal the sentence he would not make any arguments supporting the appeal, he said. He also told journalists that Xu had told the court that the legal system in China has now had its “last remaining dignity” destroyed.
Teng Biao, another lawyer who is a colleague of Xu’s and also a rights activist, said Xu has been promoting the rights of citizens for a decade. Pointing out that Xu’s modus operandi has always been legal and peaceful, he agreed with Zhang that the conviction and sentence meted out to Xu was “completely illegal.” It showed that China’s rule of law was in an extremely bad state, since Xu was doing all he could to promote the rule of law.
During the trial, the court disallowed 68 witnesses that the defense team had put forward to testify. They also refused to allow diplomats to attend and observe the trial.
Hundreds of people have joined the “activities” that Xu Zhiyong has organized over the past year. As a result, in this latest clampdown, a number of people said to be associated with the New Citizen’s Movement have been detained. Some not linked to the Association are also being put on trial. However, Xu’s trial is attracting most attention, and is said to be the biggest and most prominent political rights case in China since Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate, was tried, convicted and sentenced to 11 years in jail in 2009 – in the same Beijing court.
The United States has issued a statement expressing its deep disappointment with the verdict and sentence. The U.S. State Department has urged the Chinese government to free Xu Zhiyong and all other political prisoners. In response, China has told the US they are meddling in the country’s internal affairs. This has been reported by foreign media, some of whom were harassed by police last week. Zhang, the convicted activist’s lawyer remains pessimistic.
By Penny Swift