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Left: Sophie Luo Shengchun, the wife of jailed Chinese human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi, poses with a photo of him at her home in New York, US, July 28, 2022. Right: Chinese legal activist Xu Zhiyong.  © 2022 Brendan McDermid/Rueters (L) © Kyodo News Stills/Getty Images (R)

(New York) – Chinese authorities should immediately quash the lengthy sentences on baseless charges handed down to two of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers and activists, Human Rights Watch said today. On April 10, 2023, a court in Shandong province sentenced Xu Zhiyong to 14 years in prison and Ding Jiaxi to 12 years after convicting each for the crime of “subversion of state power.” Their trials were conducted behind closed doors and riddled with procedural problems and allegations of mistreatment.

“The cruelly farcical convictions and sentences meted out to Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi show President Xi Jinping’s unstinting hostility towards peaceful activism,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Governments around the world should join in calling on the Chinese authorities to release the two lawyers immediately and unconditionally.”

The authorities detained Ding, 55, in December 2019, after he and Xu participated in a gathering in Fujian province where a group of rights lawyers and activists discussed human rights and China’s political future. In February 2020, the police apprehended Xu in Guangzhou, where he had gone into hiding. Li Qiaochu, Xu’s partner and a Beijing-based women’s rights and labor activist, has been detained since February 2021 on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” and is awaiting trial.

Xu, 50, a former lecturer at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, was a cofounder of the now-banned legal aid center Open Constitution Initiative and the New Citizens’ Movement, a nongovernmental group advocating for civil rights, government transparency, and education equality. Ding, a former commercial lawyer, played key roles in both groups.

For their activism, Ding was imprisoned from 2013 to 2016 and Xu served four years in prison, from 2014 to 2018.

Xu was a 2020 recipient of PEN America’s PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. In 2023, the United States Department of State awarded Ding the Global Human Rights Defender Award.

“Beijing’s treatment of the country’s best-known human rights defenders should be a reality check for foreign leaders rushing to return to business as usual with Beijing,” Wang said. “The international community needs to stand by those who are paying the highest price by fighting for the rights of everyone in China.”

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