In a closed-door trial that lasted less than two hours, authorities in Shanghai handed down the sentence to Zhang Zhan, 37, for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a charge often used against dissidents.
Zhang, a former lawyer turned activist, travelled to Wuhan in February, where she filmed from overwhelmed hospitals, neighbourhoods and community centres, providing a rare window into the locked-down city. Her critical reports accusing the government of suppressing the voices of regular citizens and failing to inform residents of the reality of the situation contrasted with rosy state media coverage, one of the few sources of information. Zhang was detained in May.
Chinese authorities often hold sensitive trials involving human rights activists during the holiday season when much of the rest of the world is distracted. The proceedings, sometimes announced at the last minute, are almost always held in secret. In another such case, 10 of the so-called “Hong Kong 12” protesters caught at sea while trying to flee the crackdown in their city were expected to go on trial in Shenzhen on Monday.
During Zhang’s proceedings on Monday, which rights advocates deemed little more than a show trial, the activist was given a chance to speak.
“The government should not censor the speech of its citizens,” she said, according to her lawyer, Zhang Keke.
Human rights groups and friends of Zhang are especially worried about her health in custody. On hunger strike since June, she has been force-fed via a tube and placed under restraints. She has pledged to continue her hunger strike, according to her lawyer, despite pleas from family and friends. Advocates say she has been treated more harshly because of her refusal to cooperate or admit guilt.
Zhang is one of several citizen journalists detained for reporting on Wuhan, but the first to be sentenced to prison. Her verdict comes ahead of a mission to China led by the World Health Organization to investigate the origins of the virus, a politically fraught topic as the Trump administration and other critics say Beijing should bear responsibility for the pandemic that has now claimed more than 1.7 million lives.
“It shows that we will never know the truth about the pandemic,” said Leo Lan, a research and advocacy consultant at Chinese Human Rights Defenders. “Zhang Zhan’s heavy sentence will have a deterrent effect of silencing others who witnessed what happened in Wuhan earlier this year.”
Outside the Shanghai Pudong New District People’s Court where Zhang was tried, police pushed reporters and supporters away from the building, detaining at least nine people. On social media, activists posted pictures of Zhang and signs that read: “Zhang Zhan not guilty,” calling on the international community to pay attention to her case.
“The handling of Wuhan is very sensitive. Many people in China are still very angry at the initial coverup and downplaying,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Separately, human rights campaigners and lawyers warned that the 12 Hong Kong residents, between the ages of 16 and 33, detained incommunicado in Shenzhen for the past four months are at risk of torture and almost certain conviction in the mainland’s politicized justice system.
The group was caught in Chinese waters in August as they tried to escape to Taiwan by speedboat after the introduction of a draconian national security law in their city.
Their families were only notified of the hearing on Friday. Eight of the group have been accused of illegally crossing China’s border while two have been accused of organizing the border violation. Two minors in the group will be tried in a separate hearing.
Unable to attend the trial, the families of the detained Hong Kongers called for the proceedings to be broadcast live and for foreign governments to send envoys.
“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,” a letter from the families released on Sunday said.
Barricades surrounded the courthouse in Shenzhen on Monday, where foreign diplomats from the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada, Portugal and other countries were blocked from entering.
Ahead of the trial, the U.S. Embassy in China called for the detainees’ release. “Their so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny. Communist China will stop at nothing to prevent its people from seeking freedom elsewhere,” the embassy said in a statement.