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Zhang Zhan, an activist who criticized the Chinese government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and is being held in a Shanghai prison.  © Private/Twitter

(New York) – Chinese authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Zhang Zhan, an activist wrongfully imprisoned for reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic in the city of Wuhan in early 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. Her family says she is in desperate need of medical care.

Zhang, 38, has been on multiple hunger strikes since being detained in May 2020. She was hospitalized for 11 days in August 2021 but has since been returned to prison despite her worsening health condition. Zhang’s mother, who had a video visit with Zhang in October, said her daughter could not hold her head up for lack of strength. Zhang is 1.77 meters (5 feet, 10 inches) tall yet now weighs less than 40 kilograms (88 pounds) and urgently needs medical treatment.

“The Chinese government needs to be held to account for allowing yet another peaceful critic to fall gravely ill while unjustly imprisoned,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should call for Zhang Zhan’s urgent release to prevent an already terrible situation from becoming a tragic one.”

In early February 2020, Zhang, a former lawyer, went to Wuhan, where Covid-19 was first identified, to document the coronavirus outbreak. In the three months she stayed in the city, Zhang uploaded videos to YouTube that showed scenes of Wuhan during the government’s draconian lockdown and residents speaking about the impact of the lockdown on their lives. Her first video post was entitled “My Claim to the Right of Free Speech.”

In May, police detained Zhang and took her back to Shanghai, where she lived. In December, a court convicted her of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and sentenced her to four years in prison. Zhang declined to appeal her conviction, telling her lawyers that she rejected the validity of the legal process used to imprison her.

In 2019, police in Shanghai detained Zhang for over two months for voicing support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The authorities had previously canceled her lawyer’s license after she participated in various human rights activities, including signing petitions. 

In February 2021, the authorities revoked the license of Zhang’s lawyer, Ren Quanniu, for representing Zhang along with a group of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in a separate case. The authorities also warned Zhang’s mother not to speak to the media.

Conditions in China’s detention facilities and prisons are poor, usually with minimal nutrition and rudimentary health care. In recent years, a number of prominent dissidents in China have become seriously ill in detention, been denied adequate care, and died either in detention or shortly after being released. In February, Tibetan activist and tour guide Kunchok Jinpa died less than three months after being transferred to a hospital from prison. In July 2019, Fujian-based activist Ji Sizun died two months after being released from prison. In January 2018, Islamic scholar Muhammed Salih Hajim died a month after being detained on unspecified charges. In July 2017, Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo died three weeks after he was transferred to a hospital under heavy security. In July 2015, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a revered Tibetan lama, died while serving a life sentence after months of increasingly serious allegations that his health was deteriorating. In March 2014, activist Cao Shunli died in a Beijing hospital months after she was arbitrarily detained.

The Chinese government should end all torture and ill-treatment of prisoners and detainees, including denial of adequate medical treatment. The authorities should accept an independent, international investigation – with the participation of forensic and human rights experts from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – into the mistreatment and deaths of activists in custody.

Foreign diplomats in China should request visits with Zhang at Shanghai Women’s Prison. If such requests are denied or receive no response, they should go to the prison and personally request access to Zhang and meet with prison officials to express concerns about her case.

“Unjust sentences handed down against activists in China frequently end up being death sentences,” Wang said. “Governments around the world should send a clear message to Beijing that the wrongful arrest and mistreatment of activists needs to stop.”

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