China jails two human rights lawyers for ‘subversion’

Human rights lawyers Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi are sentenced to more than 10 years imprisonment after a closed-door trial.

Sophie Luo, wife of Chinese human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi
Luo Shengchun, wife of Chinese human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi, said she has pursued the case with US State Department officials [File: Alex Wong/Getty Images]

Two prominent Chinese human rights lawyers, including one who had called for leader Xi Jinping to resign, have been jailed for more than 10 years, an advocacy group and one of the men’s wives said.

Xu Zhiyong and fellow campaigner Ding Jiaxi were convicted of “subversion of state power” following closed-door trials.

Both were leading figures in the New Citizens’ Movement, a civil rights group that called for constitutional reform and criticised government corruption.

Xu, who called for President Xi to step down over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, was jailed for 14 years after a closed-door trial in east China’s Shandong province, advocacy group Human Rights Watch said on Monday.

Ding was “jailed for 12 years and deprived of political rights for three years”, his wife Luo Shengchun said, referring to a punishment in China that bars the convicted from holding public office.

Shengchun, who lives in the United States, has pursued his case with US State Department officials.

“Their lawyers are forbidden from publishing court verdict documents and they do not dare to reveal where they were sentenced and under what charges,” she told Reuters news agency.

She will keep pressing for information, she added.

“I will not let them put Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong in jail so easily.”

William Nee, a representative of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said the sentence showed “how hostile Xi Jinping’s China is becoming towards people who are pushing for democracy”.

The court and China’s justice ministry did not immediately make a comment on the conviction.

The two had been held for more than three years, with Ding being taken by police in December 2019, shortly after attending a gathering in southern China with about 20 other lawyers and activists.

Then he was held incommunicado for almost six months while being routinely tortured to extract a confession, his lawyer Peng Jian told the court.

Xu, a close friend of Ding who once wrote a searing open letter calling on Xi to step down, was detained in February 2020 after going into hiding.

Authorities have barred their lawyers from contact with foreign media, Luo added, in a practice that has become increasingly common in recent years so as to stifle publicity around rights-related cases.

Both had previously been imprisoned for their activism.

“The cruelly farcical convictions and sentences meted out to Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi show President Xi’s unstinting hostility towards peaceful activism,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Their secret hearings were “riddled with procedural problems and allegations of mistreatment”, the rights group added.

China has dramatically clamped down on dissent since Xi came to power in 2012. Hundreds of rights lawyers were detained and dozens jailed in a series of arrests commonly known as “709” cases, referring to a crackdown on July 9, 2015.

China has held more than one million Uighur Muslims in detention in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. The United Nations last year said the detention may amount to “crimes against humanity”.

China rejects criticism of its human rights record, saying it is a country with rule of law and that jailed rights lawyers and activists are criminals who have broken the law.

Civil liberties and freedom of expression have receded even further under Xi’s decade-long tenure, rights groups say.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies