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(New York) – Chinese courts handed down three sentences and one appeals verdict in recent days that reflect the government’s pervasive manipulation of the justice system and its violations of the right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today.

Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong hold up signs during a demonstration calling for the release of Chinese journalist Gao Yu on April 17, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

On November 26, 2015, the Beijing Higher People’s Court reduced the unjustified sentence for veteran journalist Gao Yu, 71, convicted for allegedly leaking an internal party document, from seven years to five following an appeals hearing. In a separate process, the Beijing No. 3 Intermediate People’s Court announced that Gao would be released for medical parole. On November 27, three others were sentenced for peaceful criticism of the government: Guangzhou Tianhe District Court sentenced Guo Feixiong (whose real name is Yang Maodong) to six years and Sun Desheng to two-and-a-half years in one case, and Liu Yuandong to three years in another.

“Although Gao’s sentence reduction and release were rare good news, no real justice was done,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “None of these four people committed crimes, and the courts should have simply thrown the charges out.”

On November 28, 2014, Guo was tried with Sun, a fellow Guangzhou activist, for “gathering crowds to disturb order in a public place.” On the morning of their verdict hearing on November 27, 2015, the judge informed his lawyers that, without any opportunity to argue the point before the court, Guo would be sentenced for an additional charge of “creating a disturbance.” Instead of facing a maximum of five years in prison for the original charge, Guo was sentenced to a total of six years for two crimes.

Legal proceedings against Guo and Sun have been unfair in other ways. Police denied their lawyers access to them during various periods, while court authorities barred lawyers from copying case materials. Both actions violate Chinese law. Detention center authorities have also refused to allow Guo out of his cell even once during 15 months in detention, although article 25 of the Detention Center Regulations mandates that all detainees must be allowed to leave their cells daily to exercise.

In a prepared statement ahead of the trial, Guo aptly described his verdict and the proceedings as having “trampled on justice … and wrecked rudimentary procedural justice.”

Guo and Sun were taken into custody together in August 2013. Guo’s alleged crimes, according to the indictment, involved holding placards and giving speeches at a demonstration outside the headquarters of Southern Weekly, an outspoken newspaper, when its journalists publicly protested censorship of an editorial in January 2013. The indictment also accused Guo of organizing Sun and others in eight additional cities to post online photos of themselves engaged in similar peaceful expression, including pressing the Chinese government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it signed in 1998. Sun was also convicted on November 27, 2015, of “gathering crowds to disturb order in a public place.”

What hope is there for Xi’s promises of ‘the rule of law’ when the Chinese government doesn’t even abide by its own procedures in such prominent trials.
Sophie Richardson

China director

“Once again we see peaceful critics prosecuted and given harsh sentences for pressing for changes that are already on the agenda of China’s leaders,” Richardson said. “Chinese officials regularly promise, especially in international forums, to study ratification of the ICCPR, yet people face imprisonment for calling for the same thing.”

In a separate verdict hearing on November 27, Guangzhou Tianhe District Court handed down a three-year sentence for Liu, a third Guangzhou activist. Liu has been detained since February 23, 2013, also for demonstrating against the censorship of Southern Weekly. He was convicted of “gathering crowds to disturb order in a public place,” and also for “false declaration of registered capital” in relation to a company he helped found. Liu’s lawyer said he was also not allowed out of his cell during his months of detention, and that the court had failed to deliver a verdict within the time frame stipulated under Chinese law.

At the November 26, 2015, hearing for Gao, the Beijing High Court upheld the verdict against her but reduced it because she had “confessed to her crimes” during the second instance trial. On the same day, the Beijing No. 3 Intermediate People’s Court released her due to ill-health. She was allowed to “serve her sentence outside of prison,” which means she will be subjected to unspecified “routine oversight visits” by the police.

Gao is believed to have been convicted for leaking an internal Chinese Communist Party (CCP) document calling for greater censorship of liberal and reformist ideas. She had previously retracted her confession, which was aired on state-owned CCTV, saying she had confessed out of duress. Her lawyer, who is not allowed to discuss the particulars of the case as it involves “state secrets,” said that in general suspects have little choice but to confess in order to “get leniency” according to the law.

Under President Xi Jinping, who formally assumed power in March 2013, the Chinese government has staged a comprehensive assault on freedom of expression and the rule of law. In addition to detaining and imprisoning hundreds of activists, including prominent ones, authorities have targeted the Internet and the press, emphasizing the importance of “correct” ideology and the supremacy of the party among university lecturers, party members, and journalists. It has also introduced a raft of national security laws that cast dissent as a threat. Promises of legal reform remain questionable as the courts continue to be a tool of Communist Party power.

“What hope is there for Xi’s promises of ‘the rule of law’ when the Chinese government doesn’t even abide by its own procedures in such prominent trials,” Richardson said. “World leaders have an opportunity this week in Paris for effective human rights dialogue with Xi Jinping: a unified call, delivered directly, for his government to drop all charges against these four peaceful critics.”

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