A Beijing court has sentenced prominent civil rights lawyer Xia Lin to 12 years in jail for fraud after he was held in detention for nearly two years. Xia is known for defending high-profile activists such as Ai Weiwei, Guo Yushan, Tan Zuoren, and close colleague Pu Zhiqiang—himself disbarred after receiving a three-year suspended sentence last year. At the South China Morning Post, Jun Mai and Nectar Gan report:
After being detained for two years, Xia Lin, 46, was found guilty in the Beijing No 2 Intermediate People’s Court on Thursday of fraud involving 4.8 million yuan (HK$5.6 million).
[…] As court officers dragged him out of the courtroom, Xia called the sentence “an act of retaliation” by the authorities for his involvement in sensitive cases, according to his defence lawyer and his wife, who were present at the sentencing.
[…] Xia’s defence lawyer Ding Xikui said the sentence was “neither fair nor reasonable”.
“There is a lack of sufficient evidence [for his conviction] and problems abound in the legal procedures of his case,” Ding said.
[…Xia’s wife] Lin [Ru] said the judge did not allow Xia to say anything other than he had heard the verdict clearly after announcing his imprisonment. Xia was immediately dragged out of the room after he asked the judge to give him a chance to speak, she said. [Source]
Xia’s sentence is the harshest to date in the Xi administration’s ongoing crackdown on legal advocacy. Xia was detained in November 2014 as he was readying to defend Guo Yushan, head of the now defunct Transition Institute think tank; Guo was detained a month prior and released a year later, just ahead of a state visit by Xi Jinping to Washington. Last summer, nearly 300 lawyers and activists were detained (many of whom have since been released) in what has become known as the “Black Friday” or “709” crackdown. Last month in the first round of 709 related trials, four were handed sentences ranging from a three-year suspended jail term to 7.5 years in prison. At The Washington Post, Simon Denyer quotes Amnesty International’s William Nee on Xia’s harsh sentence, and Xia’s lawyer on how authorities spun the legal borrowing of funds into a fraud case:
“The fraud charge is just a smokescreen to cover the government’s real intent: to clamp down on lawyers who are willing to defend clients in politically sensitive cases,” said William Nee, a researcher with Amnesty International in Hong Kong.
“This excessively harsh punishment most likely reflects his unwillingness to cooperate — and is probably meant to send a signal to other lawyers.”
[…] Xia’s lawyer Ding Xikui said his client was innocent and planned to file an appeal.
“This is persecution of Xia Lin, and procedurally it is illegal,” he said.
Xia was convicted of having swindled around 5 million yuan from other people ($750,000) to pay off gambling debts. But his lawyer said the loans had been freely given without any fraud. [Source]
At The Guardian, Tom Phillips relays more commentary on Xia’s sentence from other China-watching rights advocates:
[Ding Xikui] said Xia’s supporters were convinced his imprisonment was part of an ongoing attempt by the Communist party to silence dissent. He noted that the lawyer was known as a moderate member of China’s once vibrant community of human rights lawyers. “It’s really obvious that it seems to be politically motivated.”
“We can only see a very grim future for lawyers in China who work on human rights cases,” Poon added. “It [underlines] the current regime’s attitude to human rights activists … It suggests that Xi Jinping’s regime [has decided to take] a very heavy hand towards lawyers.”
Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based activist for Human Rights Watch, said: “The harsh sentence against Xia Lin sends the sternest warning yet to the community of human rights lawyers, who has been under a sustained crackdown in the past year. [Source]
Wang Zhenyu, another of Xia’s attorneys, also mentioned to media that an appeal would be filed within the next few days. On Twitter, journalist Wen Tao shared a statement on Xia’s verdict by Wang Zhenyu on WeChat, translated by CDT’s Anne Henochowicz:
Lawyer Wang Zhenyu
On Xia Lin’s Case: I’m so sad. I have a deep sense of powerlessness. I don’t want to speak. But a lot of friends are concerned. I’ve also heard a lot of fighting about Xia Lin himself and about the case. So I’ll say this: (1) Xia Lin was first accused of obtaining four lump sums totalling over 10 million yuan. The court accepted the defense’s recommendation, and Xia admitted to two sums totalling 4.81 million yuan. This is related to the 12-year sentence and the “definite amount of the crime committed.” The defense had some effect. But our defense argued that Xia was innocent. I still think the verdict is wrong. (2) Since the court agreed to discuss specifics of the case, then aside from “defense of character,” I will also speak from a technical standpoint: Xia’s admission to the two sums was also incorrect. If you’re interested, you can read my defense statement. Xia Lin stated in court that he will appeal. (3) I’ve seen some people criticize Xia Lin’s character. My thoughts: No one is perfect, and the people criticizing him perhaps don’t understand the circumstances, so these criticisms aren’t too meaningful. Xia Lin isn’t a perfect person, nor is he more flawed than the next person. I’ve seen a lot of people, including colleagues, calling for the protections of the rights of officials suspected of committing crimes in office, who are now turning around and censuring the character of a fellow lawyer facing 12 years in prison. It doesn’t smell quite right. (4) I haven’t lost hope. In many endeavors, hard work doesn’t necessarily lead to ideal results. But if you don’t try, you have no hope. [Chinese]
Wen has also shared a picture of the official verdict on Twitter.
Xia’s planned appeal stands in stark contrast to the defenses of the four recently sentenced 709 detainees, all of whom pled guilty, declined to appeal, and saw their trial footage play part in a state propaganda campaign blaming “foreign hostile forces” for training activists to destabilize China. Xia’s refusal to confess may be another reason for his harsh sentence. Just ahead of Xia’s trial, his friend and former client Guo Yushan notes Xia’s longtime devotion to defending his ideals. China Change translates:
In May 2014, Xia Lin got dragged into a number of disputes because of his involvement in Pu Zhiqiang’s (浦志强) case. One day in mid June, me, Xia Lin, and Kaiping (黄凯平) were sharing drinks at Beijing Worker’s Stadium, lamenting Pu’s case. At a break in the conversation, Xia Lin suddenly said to me: “If you get sent to prison in the future, I’ll be your lawyer. I’ll fight your case publicly to the end and I’ll do whatever it takes.” I replied that, of course, if I’m thrown in jail, fight it by all means, fight it as you see fit, and you don’t have to worry about the consequences for me. That we concluded, with Kaiping as witness, raising our hands in toast and draining our cups.
Who’d have thought that the day would come so soon? Three months after the drinks at Worker’s Stadium, both Kaiping and I were taken into custody [in October 2014]. Xia Lin indeed defended me. A month later, he was also detained. In the time that followed I was bounced between three detention centers, while he was kept in the Beijing First Detention Center. A year later I was released on bail — but they kept him behind bars because he refused to supply a confession. Another year passed, and only now is he going to meet a verdict.
We’ve all paid the price we expected.
The price is bound to be exacted, given that we’ve chosen our stance toward this country since when we were young. Xia Lin made his choice in the flush of his youth, as part of the 1989 generation, choosing to go to Tiananmen Square, wearying his spirit in the struggle with his peers to improve this country. He again made his choice when he was a student at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law (西南政法学院), where he made an open vow never to be a lackey or collaborator with evil. […] [Source]
Lawyer Wang Yu and legal assistant Zhao Wei, both detained in the 709 crackdown, were reportedly released on bail after offering confessions in July. Doubts over the authenticity of their announced release were immediately raised, as the two have yet to be seen by friends or family. At Radio Free Asia, Ng Yik-tung and Lee Lai report that the two have been subject to constant surveillance, as have other released 709 detainees:
Following a nationwide operation targeting rights lawyers, activists, their families, and employees, at least 19 of the more than 300 detained, questioned, or otherwise affected were held on suspicion of subversion with no access to a lawyer.
Wang Yu and her husband and colleague Bao Longjun were granted bail last month, but the couple has yet to be seen by friends or former colleagues.
“They are under round-the-clock surveillance by state security police, including when they go out to buy groceries and when they receive permission to visit their parents, when the police go along with them,” lawyer Li Yuhan said.
[…] Rights groups say 13 individuals from the “709” crackdown are still being held incommunicado.
[…] Li said he sees the crackdown on lawyers as part of a wider strategy to eliminate China’s nascent civil society. [Source]
As the Xi administration continues to crackdown on rights activism and civil society, The New York Times’ Chris Buckley notes that more than 100 Chinese lawyers this week signed a petition against the harassment and persecution of defense lawyers:
This week, more than 100 Chinese lawyers put their names to a petition calling on the national legislature to stop the police and other government authorities from harassing and persecuting criminal defense lawyers trying to represent their clients.
The letter said that the abuses had “deviated from the course of legality, destroyed legal order and thoroughly disappointed people’s hopes in the government.” [Source]