Why China jails activists at Christmas
The trial of Chinese human rights activist Wu Gan, who was sentenced to eight years in prison on Christmas Day, has again shed light on China’s practice of sentencing high-profile activists during the holiday period in order to avoid international scrutiny.
The week between Christmas and New Year is a dead zone for many international companies, including the media and diplomatic services, most of which are sparsely staffed during the holiday period. That can make it the ideal time to bury bad news, experts say.
This was on show Tuesday, when a court in the north eastern city of Tianjin declared Wu guilty of subversion after almost over two years in detention.
Known by his online moniker “Super Vulgar Butcher,” Wu was known for his brash, outspoken style, including protests and performances outside court houses. He often seemed oblivious, even scornful of state power, responding to criticism with profanities and defiance.
In 2008, he advocated for Deng Yujiao, a woman arrested for killing a local official who attempted to rape her. A court found her guilty but did not sentence her to prison amid a massive swell of public support for her, in part organized by Wu. Her case was later fictionalized in the Jia Zhangke movie “A Touch of Sin.”
He was one of hundreds of lawyers and activists swept up in the so-called 709 crackdown in July 2015. During a period of less than a week, at least 146 lawyers and their families were detained in a nationwide swoop according to the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG), a Hong Kong-based monitoring organization.
Most were released after questioning, but several have been handed lengthy prison terms, including Jiang Tianyong, who was sentenced to two years in prison after a televised confession his supporters have said was forced.
Wu refused to cooperate with the authorities, which may be why his prison sentence was so severe, said Kit Chan, executive director of CHRLCG.
She said his sentencing appeared to have been timed so as to avoid “public attention especially from the diplomatic circle.”
“This is quite a usual practice or tactic for the Chinese authorities, especially around important and long holidays for the international community,” Chan added.
His may not be the last case before 2018 either. Qin Yongmin, a former member of the China Democracy Party swept up in the 709 arrests, is due to be sentenced on December 29, while many people are still on holiday, according to lawyer Xie Yanyi, who was himself detained in the crackdown.
While the Chinese authorities deny timing cases in this fashion, Patrick Poon, a China researcher at Amnesty International, pointed to multiple historical examples which suggest otherwise.
In Wu’s case, Poon said, there had been little movement for months, making it “simply incomprehensible why (it needed) to be announced this week unless there are political calculations to avoid attention.”
“By trying to avoid scrutiny from the press and the international community, the Chinese government betrays the fact it knows well these sham trials cannot withstand scrutiny,” he said.
Michael Caster, author of “The People’s Republic of the Disappeared,” said each Christmas “China can be expected to hold at least one show trial for a high-profile human rights defender.”
He said the idea is to avoid media attention and to “limit the blowback from such political trials.”
One of the most well-known examples is that of Liu Xiaobo, a pro-democracy activist later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Christmas Day, 2009, over six months after he was first charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”
Liu died this year, shortly after being released on heavily-guarded medical parole, eight years into his sentence. Requests from his family and supporters that he be allowed to seek treatment overseas were denied.
He was the first Nobel Peace laureate to die in state custody since Carl von Ossietzky in Nazi Germany in 1938, and his case brought considerable international criticism of Beijing, which has seen less scrutiny of its human rights records in recent years.
Two years before, on December 25, 2007, well-known AIDS and environmental activist Hu Jia was arrested at his home in Beijing. He was later sentenced to three and a half years in jail.
In 2015, Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer who represented dissident artist Ai Weiwei among others, was handed a suspended three year-prison sentence just before Christmas. During the same period in 2011, writers Chen Xi and Chen Wei were handed 10 and nine year prison sentences respectively, according to free speech group PEN International.
Chan said timing trials for Christmas may be starting to backfire, with much coverage of Wu’s trial highlighting the fact it was scheduled for the holidays, though the trial itself was very sparsely attended according to reporters on the scene.
“It might be (becoming) less effective because the tactic is well known,” she said.
Nor did the trial’s timing prevent diplomatic condemnation, the embassies of Germany and the United States issued a joint statement Wednesday calling on the Chinese authorities “to release Wu immediately” and “view lawyers and rights defenders as partners in strengthening Chinese society through development of the rule of law.”
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