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Chinese rule of law defenders Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi tried in secret

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Two prominent Chinese defenders of citizens’ rights and the rule of law in China were tried this week on charges of subversion in what family members said was an opaque legal proceeding aimed at concealing the defenders’ fate from people human rights in the country.

Xu Zhiyong, a founding figure of the New Citizens Movement who has called for constitutionalism in China, and Ding Jiaxi, another leading figure in the movement, were tried on Wednesday and Friday respectively in Linshu County, eastern China. China, according to relatives and supporters.

The two were accused of leading an illegal organization with the intention of overthrowing the Chinese political system. Actions cited as evidence in a charge from August 2021 included filming an illegal documentary, organizing training sessions on non-violence, and holding “secret meetings” in the cities of Yantai and Xiamen.

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Luo Shengchun, Ding’s wife who now lives in the United States, described the process as taking place in “complete darkness”. Her husband’s lawyers said they could not provide her with additional information about the case. Supporters who attempted to attend the trial were kicked out of their hotel rooms in the middle of the night. All Luo received was a text message informing him that the hearing was taking place.

“It’s getting worse and worse,” she said in an interview. “The power of defense attorneys has been stripped away and at every step they have to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Even calling this a state secret has no legal basis, as they only held two private gatherings. Yes, they talked about human rights, but that should be allowed under freedom of speech.

Neither China’s Justice Ministry nor the courthouse where the trials took place responded to requests for comment.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decade-long tenure, intolerance of human rights advocacy has grown to the point that even private events can result in severe penalties, and such cases, often seen as affecting national security, are increasingly taking place almost entirely behind closed doors.

The Chinese Communist Party’s renewed control of the justice system also means that lawyers hoping to defend activists must fight for basic rights like meetings with their clients or the ability to review cases.

Even in 2015, when Chinese law enforcement launched a nationwide crackdown on human rights defenders, detainees were able to divulge details of the proceedings through their lawyers. or their relatives, but such advocacy is no longer possible, said Wang Yu, a Beijing-based human rights lawyer. who was detained during this raid.

“There’s no public attention, their families can’t protest, [and] their lawyers can’t mount a good defense,” she said. “How are you going to reach a fair verdict on this case? It’s just not possible.

Prior to Xi, the movement led by Xu seemed to be gaining limited but significant traction. In 2003, Xu was one of the few independent candidates elected to the People’s Congress from Haidian District in Beijing. Over the next decade, his advocacy for equal education rights and civic participation garnered Chinese media attention – and heightened official scrutiny.

In 2014, after a campaign calling on officials to disclose their wealth, Xu and Ding were both jailed for gathering a mob to disrupt public order. At the time, Xu’s trial received wide attention, including from Chinese media.

By contrast, Wednesday’s hearing was held in almost total silence. His lawyers, on pain of striking off, were unable to speak to the press. calls other Chinese human rights lawyers to have Xu and Ding’s trials open to the public were ignored. The courthouse has released no statement about the hearings.

After his release in 2017, Xu kept a low profile. For a year, he wrote a history of the “citizen movement” and its ideas, which was published on his blog in 24 chapters. Slowly and quietly he started meeting other activists. With Ding, he held two informal gatherings, including one in the southern seaside city of Xiamen in December 2019.

This meeting sparked a nationwide hunt for Xu and his colleagues. After weeks on the run, Xu was finally captured in February 2020, in the southern city of Guangzhou, where he was hiding with a friend.

The likely addition to the case against Xu is a letter he addressed Xi that he published while on the loose, in which he said that Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, was “not smart enough” to rule and called for resignation.

“Of course, it is easy for anyone who surrounds themselves with sycophants to develop an inflated sense of themselves. This is compounded by a system that censors dissenting viewpoints and leaves room only for flattering approval. there are no voices that dare to disagree,” Xu wrote.

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As Xi’s term lengthens, the crackdown on Chinese human rights lawyers and activists has shown no signs of abating. Tougher charges for a similar plea have resulted in harsher sentences, leaving family members increasingly concerned about the health of their imprisoned loved ones. These fears are often compounded by maintaining secrecy even after sentencing.

One such case is that of anti-discrimination activist Cheng Yuan, who was jailed in 2020 for subversion. Shi Minglei, Cheng’s wife, said she feared her slender husband would be unable to withstand the physical labor common in Chinese prisons.

“Since he was transferred to a new prison, his letters have stopped and he is not allowed to make phone calls,” she said in a phone interview from her home in the United States. . As in the cases of Xu and Ding, Shi was barred from seeing court documents relating to her husband’s trial, which are classified as state secrets. “We ask for an explanation but we’re always told ‘there’s no reason – you just can’t see it.’ The whole process of the trial took place in a black box.

Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed reporting.