Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old former lawyer and citizen journalist who was arrested in May while reporting from Wuhan, has been sentenced to four years in jail.
Zhang was arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – an accusation commonly used against dissidents, activists and journalists – with her video and blog reports from the Wuhan lockdown. Last month she was charged with disseminating false information.
On Monday afternoon, just hours after the trial began, Zhang’s lawyer said she had been sentenced to four years in jail.
The prosecution of 10 Hong Kongers detained in mainland China after allegedly attempting to flee to Taiwan also began Monday, amid a crackdown apparently timed with the Christmas period to avoid western scrutiny.Citizen journalist detained over Wuhan reporting ‘restrained and fed by tube’Read more
The indictment sheet released last week said Zhang had sent “false information through text, video and other media through the internet media such as WeChat, Twitter and YouTube”.
“She also accepted interviews from overseas media Free Radio Asia and Epoch Times and maliciously speculated on Wuhan’s Covid-19 epidemic,” it said. A sentence of four to five years was recommended.
After the hearing, Zhang’s lawyer, Zhang Keke said Zhang appeared in court in a wheelchair, and that her mother burst into tears when the verdict was announced.
Zhang has been restrained 24 hours-a-day, and force fed with a tube after she went on hunger strike, Zhang Keke said earlier this month. Zhang Keke visited again on Christmas day, and in a blog post said his client had lost 15 to 20kg and her hair had been cut short.
“She feels psychologically exhausted, like every day is a torment.”
Local media reported a heavy police presence outside the Shanghai Pudong courthouse on Monday, pushing journalists and observers away from the entrance as Zhang arrived. Foreign diplomats were reportedly among supporters at the scene.
Zhang had denied the charges and said all her reports about the outbreak response were based on first-hand accounts from locals. Her video reports were often critical of the secrecy and censorship.
“Ordinary people saying something casually in WeChat might be summoned and admonished,” she said in one report. “Because everything is undercover, this is the problem this country is facing now.”
In others she accused authorities of violating basic rights of people, and called for the release of other citizen journalists who had been arrested for reporting from Wuhan.
Among at least half a dozen citizen journalists targeted in Wuhan,Fang Bin, was arrested in February but his detention location remains secret. Chen Mei and Cai Wei are awaiting trial in Beijing after they were arrested in April for archiving censored information about the virus. Chen Qiushi, detained in Wuhan in February, was released to his parents’ home under close surveillance.
Also on Monday, the trial began for 10 Hong Kongers who were detained after allegedly trying to reach Taiwan by boat in August. The group is charged with organising or participating in an illegal border crossing. Two other members are minors and will be tried at another date.
The families said they were only told of the trial on Friday, too late to travel to Shenzhen and complete quarantine in time to attend. The trial isn’t being broadcast, and media appears unable to get inside the courtroom, turning it into a de facto secret trial, they said. Since their arrest the detainees had been almost entirely blocked from contact with families and barred from seeing chosen lawyers.
“By holding the trial of the 12 in secret, barring the media and the families from attending, the Chinese authorities are disregarding basic human rights, acting against the ‘sunshine judiciary’ principle they have been promoting,” they said in a statement on Monday.
RTHK reported from Shenzhen that court officials said the trial was open to the public but all seats had already been reserved. Chu Hoi-dick, a former Hong Kong legislator who has been helping the families, told RTHK it was expected all 10 defendants would plead guilty.
Ahead of the trial the US state department called for the group’s release, with an official saying their only “so-called crime” was to “flee tyranny”.
China’s notoriously opaque justice system has a conviction rate of about 99%, and often sees defendants denied full legal assistance. The last-minute trials of the Hong Kong 12 and Zhang came amid a flurry of activity by Chinese authorities, who have a history of using the holiday period, when many western governments and NGOs are on Christmas break, to run trials and make arrests.
In December alone, authorities have arrested a Bloomberg journalist, Haze Fan, on unspecified national security allegations; human rights activist, Ou Biaofen, after he publicised the case of an activist sent to a psychiatric facility; and documentary journalist Du Bin. Ou and Du were both arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.
Authorities also reportedly delayed the trial of Australian writer Yang Henjun, charged with espionage and allegedly tortured during his two years in detention. On Sunday a court refused to hear an appeal against the four-year sentence for human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, who publicly called for constitutional reforms including multi-candidate elections.
“The slew of detentions of those who speak out will only further impede the flow of information about the situation in China,” Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqiu Wang said. “Governments around the world should press Beijing to release wrongfully detained journalists and activists immediately.”