TAIPEI, Taiwan — A citizen journalist who documented the desperation of residents in Wuhan at the height of China's coronavirus outbreak was sentenced to four years in prison Monday in a case that underlined Beijing's extreme sensitivity to criticism of its pandemic response.
Zhang, a former lawyer turned activist, traveled to Wuhan in February, where she filmed from overwhelmed hospitals, neighborhoods and community centers, providing a rare window into the locked-down city. Her critical reports accusing the government of suppressing the voices of regular citizens and failing to inform residents of the reality of the situation contrasted with rosy state media coverage, one of the few sources of information. Zhang was detained in May.
Chinese authorities often hold sensitive trials involving human rights activists during the holiday season when much of the rest of the world is distracted. The proceedings, usually announced with little notice, are almost always held in secret. In another such case, 10 of the so-called “Hong Kong 12” protesters caught at sea while trying to flee the crackdown in their city were put on trial in the city of Shenzhen on Monday.
During Zhang’s proceedings on Monday, which rights advocates deemed little more than a show trial, the activist was given a chance to speak.
“The government should not censor the speech of its citizens,” she said, according to her lawyer, Zhang Keke.
Human rights groups and friends of Zhang are especially worried about her health in custody. On a hunger strike since June, she has been force-fed via a tube and placed under restraints. She has pledged to continue her hunger strike, according to her lawyer, despite pleas from family and friends. Advocates say she has been treated more harshly because of her refusal to cooperate or admit guilt.
Zhang is one of several citizen journalists detained for reporting on Wuhan but the first to be sentenced to prison. Her verdict comes ahead of a mission to China led by the World Health Organization to investigate the origins of the virus, a politically fraught topic as the Trump administration and other critics say Beijing should bear responsibility for the pandemic that has now claimed more than 1.7 million lives.
“It shows that we will never know the truth about the pandemic,” said Leo Lan, a research and advocacy consultant at Chinese Human Rights Defenders. “Zhang Zhan’s heavy sentence will have a deterrent effect of silencing others who witnessed what happened in Wuhan earlier this year.”
Outside the Shanghai Pudong New District People’s Court where Zhang was tried, police pushed reporters and supporters away from the building, detaining at least nine people. On social media, activists posted pictures of Zhang and signs that read: “Zhang Zhan not guilty,” calling on the international community to pay attention to her case.
“The handling of Wuhan is very sensitive. Many people in China are still very angry at the initial coverup and downplaying,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Separately, a notice released on Monday from the People’s Court of Yantian district in Shenzhen said a hearing for the Hong Kong residents had taken place that afternoon. The court said it would choose a future date for announcing its ruling.
The group of 12 was caught in Chinese waters in August as they tried to escape to Taiwan by speedboat after the introduction of a draconian national security law in their city. Eight of the group have been accused of illegally crossing China’s border, while two have been accused of organizing the border violation. Two minors in the group will be tried in a separate hearing.
Barricades surrounded the courthouse in Shenzhen on Monday, where foreign diplomats from the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada, Portugal and other countries were blocked from entering.
Ahead of the trial, the U.S. Embassy in China called for the detainees’ release. “Their so-called ‘crime’ was to flee tyranny. Communist China will stop at nothing to prevent its people from seeking freedom elsewhere,” the embassy said in a statement.
Human rights campaigners and lawyers have warned that the detained Hong Kongers, between the ages of 16 and 33, held incommunicado in Shenzhen for the past four months, are at risk of torture and almost certain conviction in China’s politicized justice system.
The detainees’ relatives called the hearing a “de facto secret trial.” While the notice from the Shenzhen court said lawmakers, journalists and relatives attended the trial, family members said they were denied access. Foreign reporters were also barred and told the courtroom was full.
“The unfair court proceedings [are] evidence of an obvious, draconian political persecution,” the families said in a statement Monday. “The families of the 12 have been in great agony throughout their detention. They are now only asking for the safety of their children and their earliest return to Hong Kong.”
Campaigners in Hong Kong accused the Chinese court of delaying sentencing to keep the 12 in custody for longer. At a news conference, some family members called for immediate sentencing so that they would be able travel to China to see their detained relatives.
“I want to see my son as soon as possible,” said the mother of Wong Wai-yin, one of the defendants, who did not disclose her name. “I only want to see him.”
Theodora Yu in Hong Kong contributed to this report.