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China - Human Rights

Chinese lawyer case criticised by activists

Supporters of Pu Zhiqiang outside the Beijing Intermedeate Court.
Supporters of Pu Zhiqiang outside the Beijing Intermedeate Court. Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Police and men in plainclothes in Beijing scuffled with supporters of human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang on Monday as he was tried over online comments critical of the ruling Communist Party. Dozens of the lawyers’ supporters travelled from across the country, some for thousands of kilometers, to protest outside the courtroom in Beijing.

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 Pu Zhiqiang is currently one of China’s most celebrated human rights lawyers and his comments on the internet have added to his fame.

Some of the crowd of supporters including the first secretary of the US embassy, journalists and friends and family members of Pu Zhiqiang were pushed away and prevented from making public comments of protest or support.

Pu has been under detention for 19 months.

For the ongoing trial, public prosecutors focused on statements Pu made on Weibo, China’s microblog site, dubbed "China’s Twitter." According to one of his lawyers who saw a document containing “evidence” of Pu Zhiqiang’s alleged violations contained 28 microblog texts.

Pu was detained in May 2014, after he had joined a gathering of dissidents campaigning for official recognition of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Police charged him with "provoking disturbances, inciting ethnic hatred and inciting the splitting of the country." This last charge is especially serious and, according to article 103 of the Criminal Law, punishable with “not less than three years but not more than 10 years."

Earlier on, Pu attracted attention with a call to have Chairman Mao’s body cremated, claiming this was the Helmsman’s own wish. Pu also attacked China’s former security chief, Zhou Yongkang, saying he was a “traitor to the People”, before Zhou went on trial for corruption.

“He’s best known these days as a human rights lawyer who has been involved in the cases of quite a number of people who found themselves up against the government because they’ve been arguing human rights cases,” says independent China scholar Michael Dillon, adding that Pu’s political legal position goes back to 1989 when he himself was involved in the democracy movement protests which lead to the June 4 military clampdown.

Pu Zhiqiang’s case is far from unique, and at the moment there are some three to four hundred known cases of dissidents behind bars in China. The violations they commit are crimes in Beijing’s view.

But activists argue that the acts often don’t go further than expressions of opinion or religion as guaranteed by the UN’s core international human rights conventions.

“[Pu Zhiqiang’s case] is consistent with quite a few of the very politicized trials we have seen under [Communist Party General Secretary] Xi Jinping,” says Sophie Richardson, China director with Human Rights Watch.

“Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang has done nothing to actually violate the law. Yet he has been held for over 19 months, his trial has been marred by a number of procedural violations, and I think the incredibly aggressive behavior showed by police outside the courtroom this morning against diplomats, journalists and supporters, shows just how hostile the Chinese government is to peaceful government critics,” she says.

For many Chinese people, it is often not clear when they violate the law, and why they find themselves behind bars.

“A lot of the people who found themselves in court on trial, might have been very surprised, because the mood seems to change quite often in China,” says Dillon.

“You often can get the indication that there’s now a liberal atmosphere and that it is acceptable to say certain things, and suddenly it changes, and you’re in trouble.”

But there are clear ‘red lines’ no one must cross.

There are the “Three T’s”: it is forbidden to talk about the independence of Taiwan, Tibet.

It is also not possible to publicly discuss the 1989 Tiananmen Square popular uprising and its aftermath where at least 155 people died as a result of a military intervention.

Apart from that, any mention of the religious Falun Gong sect can lead to immediate prosecution.

"I don’t think bloggers and activists in China are naïve," says Dillon. Some of them thread very carefully, there are others who are perhaps more courageous and say things irrespective of whether there are red lines,” he adds.

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