BEIJING — A Chinese lawyer who defended activists and others in politically sensitive cases was convicted of fraud and given 12 years in prison Thursday, his lawyers said. It is the harshest sentence to date in the relentless crackdown on China’s legal community.
Xia Lin was sentenced in Beijing after being held in detention for two years, but human rights groups maintained that the charges were fabricated: Xia’s real offense, they said, was his determination to fight injustice and refusal to publicly confess to his “crimes” against the Communist Party and Chinese state.
“The fraud charge is just a smokescreen to cover the government’s real intent: to clamp down on lawyers who are willing to defend clients in politically sensitive cases,” said William Nee, a researcher with Amnesty International in Hong Kong.
“This excessively harsh punishment most likely reflects his unwillingness to cooperate — and is probably meant to send a signal to other lawyers.”
Xia was seized in November 2014 as he prepared to defend Guo Yushan, the head of the Transition Institute, a private think tank that advocated for political and economic liberalization.
Guo, who had expressed support for the pro-democracy Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong, was released on bail after a year. But he said Xia has been kept behind bars “because he refused to supply a confession.”
Under President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has engaged in the harshest crackdown on civil society in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations — protests that Xia attended as a teenager.
Xia had gained a reputation for taking on sensitive cases, including an environmental activist investigating the shoddy school buildings that collapsed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and a hotel employee who killed a local official after she said he tried to rape her.
He also defended artist and dissident Ai Weiwei in 2011, and worked alongside prominent lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was himself disbarred and given a suspended jail term last December for criticizing the government on social media.
In the summer of 2015, Chinese authorities rounded up around 300 activists and lawyers, and although most were subsequently released, more than a dozen remain behind bars.
A first batch of four went on trial in August and were given sentences ranging from 7½ years to a suspended three-year prison term. All four were shown on television making humiliating public confessions, renouncing their own actions and warning against “hostile foreign forces” and subversive ideas, such as “human rights” and “democracy.”
Another prominent lawyer, Wang Yu, was released on bail after making a similar televised confession. She had been held for more than a year on subversion charges and remains under tight surveillance akin to house arrest along with her family, Radio Free Asia reported this week.
Amnesty’s Nee said there was speculation that the remaining lawyers and activists in detention are those who have yet to cooperate, “and this heavy sentence of Xia Lin could be a way to intimidate them into submission.”
Xia’s attorney Ding Xikui said his client was innocent and planned to file an appeal. “This is persecution of Xia Lin, and procedurally it is illegal,” he said.
Xia was convicted of having swindled around 5 million yuan ($750,000) from other people to pay off gambling debts. But his lawyer said the loans had been freely given without any fraud.
“This was just borrowing and lending among people,” Ding said.
The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders listed a range of legal violations in Xia’s case, including the deprivation of legal counsel, grueling interrogation sessions, punishing him with bright lights, and the extensive use of shackles. The court did not give defense counsel access to evidence, nor did it allow the defense to call its own witnesses or question the other witnesses, the network said.
Ding said the prosecution had made a mockery of the Communist Party’s vow to govern according to the rule of law.
Maya Wang at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong said the harsh verdict did not bode well for China’s civil society or the rule of law.
“President Xi said, in early 2015, that the law should become a ‘knife held firmly in the hands of the Party’; the harsh sentence reflects such ambition,” she said.
In a tribute to his friend, the Transition Institute’s Guo said Xia had made an open vow as a student “never to be a lackey or collaborator with evil.” In May 2014, the pair had discussed the possibility of arrest and had now “paid the price we expected,” Guo said.
“I was detained because of Occupy Central, and Xia Lin chose to stand up at the most dangerous time, when the atmosphere was the most intense,” he said in a telephone interview. “He did the bravest thing, and now the government has imposed the crime of fraud onto him, stigmatized him and put him in prison.”
The two men, along with many other people, “are all fated to be the stepping-stones, the paving stones for the age of the future,” Guo wrote on the China Change website. “Accepting this humble place in history is our honor.”
Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.