Dissident sentences spark international outcry amid fears for third lawyer’s health

The wife of lawyer Chang Weiping says nobody has seen him since he appeared very thin at his trial last year.
By Jenny Tang and Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin
Dissident sentences spark international outcry amid fears for third lawyer’s health In this undated handout photo Xu Zhiyong, left, and Ding Jiaxi in Guangzhou, China.
(Photo via Reuters)

The jailing of Chinese dissidents Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi to more than a decade apiece for “subversion” on Monday has sparked international condemnation, amid fears another lawyer may be in line for an equally harsh sentence.

“I am very concerned that two prominent human rights defenders in China – Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong – have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, at variance with international human rights law standards,” United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said in a statement.

“Human rights law requires that people not be prosecuted or otherwise punished for voicing their criticism of government policies. It also requires respect for fair trial and due process rights, and proper investigations into any allegations of ill-treatment,” Türk said, adding that he would “follow up” with Beijing about the cases.

The United States also condemned the sentences – 14 years to Xu and 12 years for Ding – calling them “unjust.”

“These sentences demonstrate the PRC’s expansive effort to intimidate and silence all aspects of civil society,” the State Department said in a statement on its website, calling for the pair’s immediate and unconditional release.

In this Jan. 22, 2014 photo, Chinese police stand guard outside the No. 1 Intermediate court in Beijing, ahead of a trial of Xu Zhiyong, one of China’s most prominent dissidents who founded the New Citizens Movement. (Goh Chai Hin/AFP)

“We similarly call upon [Beijing] to release others who were unjustly detained or imprisoned, to reinstate the lawyers who were unjustly disbarred, and to allow all individuals to exercise their fundamental freedoms,” it said.

The Linshu County People’s Court in the eastern province of Shandong handed down a 14-year jail term to Xu Zhiyong and a 12-year sentence to rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi on Monday after finding both men guilty of “subversion of state power” – a charge often used to target critics of the government – after they attended a 2019 dissident gathering.

Activists attended a dinner in Xiamen

Ding and Xu, the founder of the “New Citizens’ Movement” campaign for government transparency, were detained after they attended a dinner with prominent activists in December 2019 in Xiamen in southeastern China.

The lengthy jail terms have sparked fears that another lawyer who attended the gathering, Chang Weiping, could also soon receive a similarly harsh sentence, according to his wife, Chen Zijuan.

“The trial will be held soon, and I worry that my husband will also receive a harsh sentence,” she told Radio Free Asia.

“It seems the Xiamen gathering cases are being wrapped up now, and I expect Chang Weiping’s sentencing to come soon,” she said.

In this March 6, 2023 photo, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk, center, is seen on a TV monitor speaking during a session of the 52nd UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

Chang – whose lawyers say he has suffered torture in incommunicado detention – was tried in secret on identical charges at the Feng County People’s Court in the northern province of Shaanxi in July 2022.

The charge carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a minimum jail term of 10 years.

“It’s clear that the Chinese Communist Party is trying to make an example of [people who went to the Xiamen gathering], and suppress civil society in China with these heavy sentences,” Chen said, adding that Chang’s case, like Xu’s and Ding’s, has been subjected to repeated delays.

“A regular criminal case typically takes about four months to get to trial in China, but in Chang Weiping’s case, it has been two-and-a-half years,” Chen said. “They drag these things out because they hope that the international attention will die down, and people will get distracted by the next news story.”

Chen voiced fears for her husband’s health after such a long time in pretrial detention, saying he had lost a lot of weight. But he has also been denied visits from his legal team since last year’s trial, leading her to fear that he could have been tortured again.

“The lawyer who saw him during the trial said he was looking very thin, only weighing around ... 50 pounds,” she said. “What kind of state is his health in now? Why won’t the police allow visits?”

In this March 2023 handout photo, Chang Weiping’s wife, Chen Zijuan, receives the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights for 2021 on behalf of her husband at the German Embassy in Washington.

Zhou Fengsuo, founder and director of the U.S.-based rights group Humanitarian China, said he is very concerned about Chang, Xu, Ding and fellow activist Li Qiaochu, who was sent to a psychiatric hospital in the eastern province of Shandong following accusations of “subversion of state power.”

“China’s human rights record is a threat to the whole world,” Zhou said. “The international community needs to get tougher on this, not just speaking out, but also coming up with tougher policies.”

“The best way would be to link trade policy with the human rights situation in China, which would make international pressure more effective in the long term,” he said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Matt Reed.


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