Fan Lili, the wife of imprisoned activist Gou Hongguo, is escorted by Li Wenzu, the wife of imprisoned lawyer Wang Quanzhang, and another woman as they stage a protest outside the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People's Court in Tianjin, China on Monday, August 1, 2016.

© 2016 Associated Press

(New York) – The trials of Beijing Fengrui Law Firm director Zhou Shifeng and activists Hu Shigen, Zhai Yanmin, and Gou Hongguo, which are being held this week at Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court, are a miscarriage of justice, Human Rights Watch said today. Chinese authorities should immediately drop all charges against the lawyers, legal assistants, and rights activists detained in connection with the sweep of July 9, 2015. The trials, held between August 2 and 5, have not been open and public as claimed by Chinese authorities.

On August 2 the court tried, convicted, and sentenced Zhai for “subversion” within five hours. The court handed down a term of three years in prison but commuted it to four years’ suspended sentence. On August 3, also within hours, the court convicted Hu for “subversion” and sentenced him to seven and a half years in prison.

On August 1, state media and pro-Beijing press in Hong Kong reported that Tianjin authorities had also released on bail Wang Yu, one of the most prominent Fengrui lawyers, and broadcast a confession by her that appeared coerced. Her whereabouts remain unknown.

“These cases lay bare Chinese authorities’ shameless manipulation of the legal system to silence rule of law advocates and critics,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities have lied about an open trial, and faked Wang Yu’s release. The only hard truth here is China’s appalling backsliding on rights.”

Starting on August 2, Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court is hearing the case of “subversion” against Zhou, Hu, Zhai and Gou. There is no credible evidence of the charges publicly available, and all four defendants’ and Wang Yu’s lawyer have stated they are innocent of the charges. According to Xinhua News Agency, the trial is “open to the public.” Yet authorities failed to notify any of the defendants’ family members or lawyers that the trials were taking place, nor did those authorities allow them to attend or represent the defendants. While the trial purported to include media outlets and lawyers, only those handpicked by the authorities were invited to attend.

These cases lay bare Chinese authorities’ shameless manipulation of the legal system to silence rule of law advocates and critics.

Sophie Richardson

China Director

According to Xinhua, Zhai was convicted for participating in various protests, “distorting facts” about these cases on the internet, and joining a gathering with other human rights lawyers and activists discussing how to get involved other “sensitive cases.” Through his thoughts, speech and activities, Zhai “attacked the national and legal system,” and “stirred up hatred against the government” with the aim to start a “color revolution.”

Subversion is a serious political crime that can result in a life sentence, according to Article 105(1) of the Criminal Law.

On July 29, Liu Ermin, Wang Xiaoling, Li Wenzu, and Fan Lili – wives of lawyers and activists detained in Tianjin – went to the court seeking information about the trial. Instead, authorities detained them. On August 1, Liu, Wang, and Li were then put under house arrest to prevent them from attending the trials.

“If China upheld the rule of law as officials so often claim, Wang Yu would be able to freely explain what has happened to her, and family members could go to authorities to obtain routine information about cases without fear of being detained themselves,” Richardson said.

Between July 9 and September 2015, Chinese police rounded up about 300 rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists across the country for their support or association with Beijing Fengrui Law Firm. While many were released within a day or two after questioning, at least 16 remain detained, according to the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders. Since that time, authorities have committed multiple, severe procedural violations in these cases. During much of their year-long detention, many of those 16 detainees have been held incommunicado, and have had no access to lawyers of their choice or their family members.

While the lawyers were held incommunicado, the authorities allowed state press, or pro-Beijing media based in Hong Kong, access to the detainees to record their purported confessions, which were made public afterwards. In a May 2015 report, Human Rights Watch documented police abuse in the course of videotaping criminal proceedings: suspects were tortured or threatened before participation in the recordings, and recanting those confessions in subsequent proceedings often resulted in torture or other ill-treatment.

The latest such public confession was published by Oriental Daily, a Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing daily, as well as mainland media on August 1, the day before the secret trial. In that confession Wang Yu expressed remorse about her work, attacked her colleague Zhou Shifeng as “an unqualified lawyer,” said she was “used” by foreign organizations to “smear China,” and stated that she “will not accept” international awards in recognition of her work. Friends and colleagues have noted that these comments are contrary to Wang Yu’s character, who is known for her dedication to human rights and has a long track record of defending activists in high-profile cases, including Uighur economist Ilham Tohti and women’s rights activist Li Tingting. Wang Yu’s lawyer has not been able to contact her or confirm her release. Her husband, Bao Longjun remains detained, and their teenage son, Bao Mengmeng, is under house arrest.

On July 7, Zhao Wei – a legal assistant to Li Heping who had also been detained since July 2015 – was similarly “released” on bail. She allegedly posted a written confession on her weibo account, yet her family and lawyer have been unable to contact her.

In a demonstration of international concern regarding the cases, approximately eight foreign governments sent diplomats to try to observe the trial proceedings outside the Tianjin No.2 Intermediate People’s Court on August 1. Human Rights Watch urges them to issue statements condemning the secret trial, coerced confessions, and the continued detentions, and call for the detainees’ release. Several governments have issued statements, including an unprecedented March 2016 joint statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council, to release activists and lawyers, cease broadcasting confessions, and guarantee the right to a fair trial.

“These cases bear no resemblance to fair or transparent justice—they are simply political persecution masquerading as legal proceedings,” Richardson said.