Chinese Court Jails Labor Activist After Guilty Plea 'Under Pressure'

china-menghan-nov32016.jpeg Poster calling for freedom for Meng Han is shown on a wall of the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong, Nov. 3, 2016.

Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong on Thursday handed down a 21-month prison term to a labor activist detained as part of a crackdown on nongovernment groups last December.

The Panyu District People's Court sentenced Meng after finding him guilty of "gathering crowds to disrupt public order," sources close to the case said.

"[The lawyer] told me he received a jail term of one year and nine months," the source said. "Meng Han pleaded guilty, and the lawyer gave an independent opinion that the court refused to accept."

"It wasn't a heavy sentence, but he still has to go to jail, while the others have been released," the source said.

Repeated calls to Meng's defense attorney Yan Xin rang unanswered on Thursday.

However, Guangdong-based rights lawyer Wu Kouming said the sentence was a form of political retaliation for Meng's support for workers in a slew of recent labor disputes and strikes.

"It's morally tricky for them to target NGO workers like Meng Han and Zeng Feiyang, so they use these trumped-up charges, which they really need them to plead guilty to," Wu said.

A Chinese labor activist who asked to remain anonymous said Meng had likely pleaded guilty under extreme pressure.

"We understand and respect Meng Han's decision to plead guilty, which under such huge pressure is totally understandable," the activist said.

"However, we accept neither the verdict and sentence nor Meng Han's guilty plea as valid."

Family attacked

According to the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin (CLB), Meng's family faced continual pressure during his detention.

"His parents had to move out after unidentified thugs attacked their apartment door with an axe," the group said in an article on its website.

It said Meng's group had helped negotiate in several high-profile collective bargaining cases, "effectively defusing the possibility of more severe social unrest."

CLB director Han Dongfang said the tactic of jailing activists like Meng would likely backfire, as Guangdong continues to see a wave of labor unrest against a background of widespread factory closures and relocations.

"They can try to blame the firefighters, but if those who were helping put the fire out are not allowed to do their job, it can only get worse", Han said.

Hong Kong-based labor activist Lee Cheuk-yan said the sentence would likely have a dampening effect on labor activism in the region.

"There is likely to be a chilling effect, as people realize that the likely outcome of getting involved in rights movements and protests is that you go to jail," Lee told RFA.

"They will do anything to force rights activists to surrender, and to use them as a form of propaganda."

Colleagues released

Meng was detained alongside his colleagues at the Panyu Workers Center Zhu Xiaomei, Tang Huanxing, and Zeng Feiyang.

All were initially detained on the same charge, but Zeng, Zhu, and Tang were released with suspended jail terms on Sept. 26 after pleading guilty.

Meng remained in police detention while prosecutors sent his case back to police for "further investigation."

Following his initial detention on Dec. 3, Meng was denied access to a defense attorney until Feb. 19, the CLB reported, citing other violations of his rights during detention.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is in the middle of a widening crackdown on nongovernment groups, especially those involved in the country's nascent but unofficial labor movement.

According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), Chinese NGOs work on issues that affect millions of ordinary people daily, including domestic violence and discrimination, child welfare, labor disputes, and environmental pollution.

But NGOs that work on human rights or civil liberties issues and rely on foreign funding are being forced to accept police supervision under a Foreign NGOs Management Law that took effect in April.

Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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