A court in Shanghai recently handed down a secret sentence of three years' imprisonment to detained rights activist Chen Jianfang, a Chinese rights website reported.
"We learned on Oct. 2, 2020 that Shanghai human rights defender Chen Jianfang has been sentenced to three years' imprisonment for incitement to subvert state power," the Weiquanwang rights website reported, citing lawyer Liu Shihui.
"Chen Jianfang is currently being held in the Shanghai Detention Center. The authorities have so far not allowed her to meet with a defense attorney," the report said.
The sentence will run until Feb. 18, 2022, it said.
Chen, 49, a Shanghai-based housing activist was recently named as a recipient of the 4th Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders by Civil Rights & Livelihood Watch, Human Rights Campaign in China, and the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network.
The news of her secret sentencing came after her indictment by the state prosecutor on Aug. 30, and the transfer of her case to the Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People's Court.
Chen's appointed defense lawyer Wu Li told RFA on Monday that she had been repeatedly denied permission to meet with her client.
"After she instructed us, she applied to the Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate Court, but it didn't approve her request, so we were never able to read the case files," Wu said. "Later, we requested information from the court about where she was being held, but they didn't tell us."
"I later learned that she is in the Shanghai No. 1 Detention Center, so I made an appointment, but they canceled it," Wu said. "The reason they gave was ridiculous: that only one meeting was permitted for each stage in the case."
Wu said unconfirmed reports suggest that Chen's family may have been forced to revoke her lawyer's instruction under pressure from the authorities.
Cao Shunli as model
Gu Guoping, a friend of Chen's, said her detention came after she penned an essay paying tribute rights activist Cao Shunli on the fifth anniversary of her death in police custody on March 14, 2014.
Gu said the charges could also be linked to the way in which the news of the Cao Shunli award was made public.
"She inadvertently disclosed the contact details of the chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Council to petitioners, and they also inadvertently leaked the news [of her award]," Gu said. "Then the authorities stopped her from going to Switzerland [to receive the award]."
Chen has been held incommunicado for more than six months on subversion charges, putting her at high risk of torture and other ill-treatment, rights groups say.
Chen was detained on March 20 alongside her husband, and the couple 'disappeared' for several months. Chen was formally arrested on suspicion of "subversion of state power" on May 22, while her husband was released on bail on April 3.
Her incommunicado detention was the subject of an appeal from four United Nations human rights experts to the Chinese government in August.
Chen, 49, who hails from a rural community, began defending land and housing rights after her family lost land to government-backed developers.
Her work has highlighted the widespread mass evictions behind Shanghai's skyscrapers and high-speed railways, key elements in China's development showcase that mask widespread abuses of residents' rights.
She has referred to Cao Shunli as "my spiritual teacher, from whom I learned some of the highest ideals."
"My own rights defense work is indivisible from what she taught me," Chen wrote to RFA at the time of the award.
Chen's sentencing comes at a time of worsening rights abuses under President Xi Jinping, who now looks set to rule indefinitely.
Cao was detained on Sept. 14, 2013, as she was boarding a flight to Geneva, where she was to attend a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, where she hoped to participate in drafting China’s human rights action plans and reports for its U.N. human rights reviews.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Jia Ao for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.