(New York) - More than six months after being put on trial in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen on trumped-up charges of "conspiring to subvert the government," two Chinese unofficial labor movement activists, Li Wenming and Guo Baosheng, have been handed prison terms of three and one-half years each. Human Rights Watch/Asia condemned the sentences as a serious violation of international human rights standards.

"Li and Guo were guilty of nothing more than trying to educate Chinese migrant workers about their rights to organize and engage in collective bargaining in the workplace," said Sidney Jones, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Asia. "They should never have been detained for a single day, let alone held incommunicado for two and a half years and then sentenced to further time in jail after a closed trial." Li is now due to be released on November 11, 1997, and Guo on December 3, 1997.

The sentences, which were lighter than expected, came only days after four worker dissidents arrested after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 1989 Tang Yuanjuan, Li Wei, Leng Wanbao and Li Zhongmin--reportedly had their sentences overturned or greatly reduced by the High Court in Changchun, Jilin province. If confirmed, the Jilin court's decision on Thursday would be the first known instance of any Tiananmen-era verdicts being reversed. Both the Shenzhen sentences and the Jilin decision coincide with the anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown, the annual debate in the U.S. Congress over extending China's most favored nation trading status, and a bid by China to recover its worker-delegate seat at the International Labor Organization, but it is unclear if there is any causal connection.

Li Wenming, twenty-nine years old and currently held in Shenzhen Municipal Jail, is reported to be suffering from acute kidney damage and to be in severe pain, but he has been denied access to appropriate medical care. His face is said to be badly swollen and he reportedly has great difficulty in even standing unaided. According to Chinese medical experts recently consulted by persons close to Li's family, the symptoms are sufficiently grave that unless Li is permitted to receive immediate treatment, he may be in imminent danger of losing at least one kidney. No information is presently available on the medical condition of Li's codefendant, Guo Baosheng, who is also currently held at Shenzhen Municipal Jail.

The nature of the charges against the two men appears to have undergone significant alterations between the November 1996 prosecution indictment and the May 29, 1997 verdict. The former document characterized the pair's "crimes" as consisting mainly of their attempts to set up, in 1993 and early 1994, an ad hoc worker rights education center and to produce an unofficial journal called Workers Forum which they distributed among Shenzhen's migrant worker population. The verdict, however, downplayed this aspect of the original charges and instead dwelt on new government allegations against Li and Guo, notably that they had indirectly accused Chairman Mao of having "replaced the old feudal monarchy with a new one." (For background information on the two men's labor rights activism and on the government's case against them, see "China: Labor Rights Activists On Trial in Shenzhen," Human Rights Watch/Asia, November 1996.)

The long delay between the trial, which began on November 8, 1996 and concluded ten days later, and the final announcement of the sentences, which occurred only last Thursday [May 29, 1997], was in direct contravention of Article 125 of the 1979 Criminal Procedure Law of the People's Republic of China, which states that judgments in criminal trials must in all cases be announced no later than one and a half months after the end of the trial. Despite this serious procedural violation, the prison sentences passed on Li and Guo were considerably lighter than might have been expected, given the gravity of the charges against them. (According to Article 92 of the version of the PRC Criminal Law that was in operation at the time of their trial, the "counterrevolutionary" offense of "conspiring to subvert the government" was punishable by a minimum of ten years' imprisonment and, at maximum, by death.)

The Shenzhen city authorities had evidently planned to carry out the trial of Li and Guo with a minimum of public attention, and they were clearly taken aback when the Hong Kong local and international press corps descended on the Shenzhen Intermediate Court a day or so after the trial began last November. The trial was promptly postponed for more than a week until all the journalists had departed. This, together with the long delay in announcement of the sentences, suggests that the international publicity that the case attracted may have been in part responsible for the authorities' decision to impose sentences below the legally prescribed minimum. The verdict itself noted only that the judgment was based on Article 59 (paragraph 2) of the 1979 Criminal Law, which gives courts the discretionary power to pass "mitigated sentence" even when "the circumstances of a criminal element do not warrant it."