(New York) – Chinese authorities should immediately quash the conviction and unconditionally release the founder of a human rights news website, Human Rights Watch said today. On January 29, 2019, a court in Hubei province sentenced Liu Feiyue to five years in prison after convicting him on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.”
Liu, 48, is a veteran activist and founder of Minsheng Guancha (Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, 民生观察). The website, created in 2006, has reported on a wide range of human rights issues in China, including prosecutions of activists and lawyers, protests, police abuses, and government corruption, subjects that China’s state-controlled media are prohibited from covering.
“Prosecuting the editor of a human rights website shows just how frightened the Chinese government is about independent reporting on abuses from inside China,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher. “Sending Liu Feiyue to prison for five years is a travesty of justice meant to scare off others who might follow in his footsteps.”
On November 17, 2016, police in Suizhou, Hubei province took Liu into custody. On December 23, the Suizhou procuratorate, or prosecutor’s office, formally arrested him for “inciting subversion.” In August 2017, the procuratorate added a charge of “providing state secrets to a foreign entity,” but withdrew the charge months later.
The prosecution against Liu has been marred by denial of his right to legal counsel and other due process violations. Authorities repeatedly rejected Liu’s lawyers’ requests to meet with him, until May 2017. In June 2018, the Hunan Bureau of Justice revoked the license of one of Liu’s lawyers, Wen Donghai, for “disorderly court conduct” in previous cases. Prior to Wen’s disbarment, judicial authorities had repeatedly criticized him for “hyping up” Liu’s case on the internet and for talking to foreign media. Since 2017, authorities have intensified disbarment of lawyers to deter them from taking on human rights cases.
During Liu’s trial at the Suizhou Intermediate People’s Court on August 7, 2018, police took away activists who had come to show support for Liu and blocked people from approaching the court building. Authorities pressured Wu Kuiming, the lawyer replacing Wen, not to discuss the proceedings publicly.
In addition to operating the rights monitoring website, Liu compiled annual reports on human rights abuses in China from 2014 until his detention. He had also written many essays advocating nonviolent civil disobedience and organized petitions calling for political reform in China.
In the indictment against Liu, the Suizhou procuratorate accused him of “attacking the current political system,” “defaming the Chinese government,” and “spreading information harming state power and the Socialist system” through the articles and reports he published.
Before his arrest in 2016, Liu had long been a target of police harassment and surveillance due to his activism. Prior to and during politically “sensitive” events – such as the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre and sessions of the National People’s Congress – police briefly detained Liu or placed him under house arrest. Authorities had also cut the electric cables connecting to Liu’s home, and had followed and beaten him, his wife said.
In recent years under President Xi Jinping, China’s government has tried to eliminate the country’s few independent human rights news websites by imprisoning its leaders. Lu Yuyu, founder of the protests chronicle website Not News, was sentenced to four years in prison, and Zhen Jianghua, executive director of the website Human Rights Campaign in China, was sentenced to two years. Huang Qi, a veteran activist and founder of the website 64 Tianwang, has been detained and awaiting trial since November 2016. Huang suffers from kidney disease and has been denied adequate medical care.
“Liu Feiyue and others have given a voice to so many people who have suffered abuses at the hands of Chinese authorities,” Wang said. “Such prosecutions show that the Chinese government still has plenty to hide when it comes to human rights violations.”