New Citizens’ Movement members Hou Xin and Yuan Dong were convicted on Wednesday, days after the group’s founder Xu Zhiyong received a four-year prison sentence. Several other activists have cut short their trials over the past week, however, by firing their lawyers in protest. All were charged with “gathering crowds to disturb public order” as they campaigned for disclosure of officials’ assets and provision of education for migrants’ children. From Sui-Lee Wee at Reuters:
Yuan was sentenced to 1-1/2 years in prison, but Hou escaped a jail term because the court considered her action a “less serious” crime, lawyers for the two and the court’s official microblog said.
“They are not only innocent, but they are among the best and most outstanding people in China,” said Yuan’s lawyer, Chen Jiangang. “They are China’s conscience.”
Yuan, who was tried on Monday, will definitely appeal against the judgment, Chen told Reuters by telephone. “I believe they should not even sentence him to a day,” he added.
Yuan and Hou were among four activists who unfurled banners and gave speeches in a busy western part of the capital last March, urging officials to disclose their assets. [Source]
Wee also reported that Xu’s lawyer Zhang Qingfang has confirmed that they will appeal his sentence, despite having remained silent until the end of the original trial.
“If we don’t appeal, the verdict in these [other] cases will not be changed, they’ll be predetermined,” Zhang told Reuters by telephone. “So we have to fight for a space for them, we have to fight for a chance.”
Zhang said although both he and Xu did not think they would win a lighter sentence with the appeal, they planned to use the opportunity to lay out their points of view about the case.
Zhang said he would file an appeal for Xu within 10 days.
[…] Zhang said that on Monday, he read Xu a letter from his wife, Cui Zheng, describing their first child, born about two weeks ago.
“When he was listening, he was very sad. He cried,” Zhang said. “After all, he hasn’t seen his child after her birth and the family’s responsibility now falls on Cui Zheng herself.” [Source]
An English translation of Cui’s letter is available at China Real Time.
In addition to the court appeal, Global Times’ Chang Meng and Jiang Jie report that a group of legal scholars is pressing for a review of Xu’s indictment. (Other experts are quoted in support of the charges and verdict.)
“Despite knowing that organizing people to gather in public places for certain appeals and holding banners would draw onlookers, which could easily disrupt social order and cause participants to resist law enforcement, Xu kept doing so and did not take effective measures to prevent such consequences,” the court stated when giving grounds for the conviction in the indictment.
[…] The scholars argued that the front areas of the MOE building and the Beijing education commission don’t provide particular service functions and full access to the general public like transport terminals, malls, parks or stadiums, which are considered as “public areas” when defining Xu’s crime.
Meanwhile, space for the peaceful and legal expressions of opinion is considered one of the functions of universities, parks and city squares, the scholars claimed, adding that holding banners and advocating for officials’ assets disclosure don’t fall outside this scope.
[…] While the court ruled that Xu had used improper means to convey his requests and caused “serious consequences,” the definition of “serious” remains ambiguous and needs to be clarified, Tong Zongjin, a law professor with the China University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times. [Source]
Xu made the same argument about public space in his closing statement, and claimed that it was not the protesters who had “disturbed public order.” From a translation at China Change:
In the two petitioning events, one on July 5, 2012 and the other on February 28, 2013, we the citizens went to the education authority, or a government office, not a public place in a legal sense, to make an appeal. China’s Criminal Law is very clear on the definition of public spaces, and government buildings, locations of organizations and public roads are not among them. Therefore our activities do not constitute disruption of order in a public place.
Over the past three years, our activities have remained consistently moderate and reasonable. Certain parents did get emotional or agitated during the July 5th petition, and the reason was that the Ministry of Education failed to live up to its own publicly-issued promise, nor did it provide any explanation.
Yet despite this, their so-called agitation was merely the shouting of a few slogans, demanding a dialog with the Minister of Education, rather understandable considering they had gathered 100,000 signatures, behind which stand the interests of 200 million new urban immigrants.
And the response they got? […] There were police officers who, with a prepared list of names in hand, sought them out and beat them. [Source]
To protest at the succession of judicial rulings that denied him the protections of Chinese law, Xu and his counsel remained silent during the trial’s consideration of evidence. But he did seek to exercise a defendant’s statutory right to make a closing statement.
[…] To maintain his protest against the court’s rulings, Xu could have refused to appeal against his conviction and four-year sentence. He is surely aware that, in such a politically manipulated case, the chances of impartial appellate review are dim. Yet his decision to appeal is correct.
Xi and the new leaders of the Supreme People’s Court may belatedly realise that Xu’s prosecution repudiates everything they have been preaching in the past year about the need “to let every citizen feel fairness and justice in every case”, and the appellate court could then decide that the statute should not be interpreted to forbid peaceful protests.
[…] In the interim, Chinese and foreign journalists, legal experts and diplomats should ask Xi and judicial leaders whether Xu’s case illustrates the new type of justice “in accordance with law” they have been advocating. Or is it just another wrongful conviction? [Source]
Far from recognizing the encroachment of stability maintenance on citizens’ rights, however, Xi reportedly stated recently “that rights defense is the basis of stability maintenance, and stability maintenance is the essence of rights defense.” (Xu, on the other hand, described petitioning as “rights defense with Chinese characteristics” in his aborted closing statement.) AFP correspondent Tom Hancock reported on Twitter that police quoted this principle to him outside Xu’s pre-trial hearing.
Meanwhile, fears are now growing that activists’ lawyers will also face reprisals to deter organization among those willing to take on rights-related cases. From Malcolm Moore at The Telegraph:
Several lawyers said the Communist party has lost patience with having its will challenged in court.
Over the past week, lawyers helped to thwart the trials of seven activists belonging to the New Citizens’ Movement by advising their clients to fire them in court and trigger a retrial.
[…] On Monday, a judge in Beijing threatened to report one lawyers, Chen Jiangang, to the Judicial Bureau after his client used the tactic.
“This type of behaviour, which hinders the government, will be cracked down on,” said Chen Guangwu, a lawyer who is defending the prominent southern activist Guo Feixiong. Mr Chen said contacts inside the legal system had warned him to tread carefully during the first half of this year.
[…] Last October, an open letter to the Justice ministry calling for the reinstatement of 38 disbarred lawyers was signed by hundreds of lawyers. However, those who signed were quickly warned to stop organising themselves into a movement. [Source]
Such organization was just one of the “red lines” that Xu crossed, Yiyi Lu wrote at Foreign Policy:
[…] Chinese civil society actors have long known there are three red lines they mustn’t cross if they don’t want to end up on Beijing’s list of troublemakers. The first is between the political and the non-political: If the issues they engage with are political in nature, civil society actors must find ways to depoliticize them and present them as technical issues instead. The second line is between national and local: Any attempt to establish cross-regional organizations or movements must be strictly avoided. Everything must be kept localized and uncoordinated with activities in other locations. The third is street campaigns. Criticizing the authorities in conference rooms, advocacy reports, or on the web is one thing. Once critics take to the street, it’s a different ballgame.
Staying away from these red lines doesn’t guarantee that civil society activities will be free from government intervention or harassment. But the consequences of crossing them is usually much worse. Xu and his fellow campaigners stepped beyond all three.
[…] The sentencing of Xu — and the crushing of the New Citizens Movement that it represents — does not necessarily mean that the new leadership will not contemplate any political reform. But the party will not allow any outside force to dictate reform’s timing, pace, or agenda; if reform happens, it will be from the top down. The party is convinced that the day that grassroots political movements born without party blessing can flourish is the day when it loses full control of the country’s political process. [Source]
Verna Yu presented similar views at South China Morning PostL
“By making him the poster boy for punishment, Xi is trying to show zero tolerance for any activity, however intrinsically desirable, that is not monopolised by the party,” said China law expert Professor Jerome Cohen at New York University in New York.
[…] Eva Pils, a Chinese law expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the authorities were trying to quash the New Citizens movement because they saw a worrying trend: connections being built among citizens from a broad strata of Chinese society, including lawyers, scholars, rights activists and petitioners.
“The crackdown is very intense now … because the government has not been able to control such actions as well as it used to,” she said.
Observers and rights activists say the prosecution of New Citizen activists, and the wider efforts to crackdown on government critics, won’t prevent more people from demanding broader rights.
“These sentences certainly do nothing to stop the sense of grievance that motivates people to come out in the streets,” Pils said. [Source]