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China serves prominent activists lengthy jail terms

April 10, 2023

Activists Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi were sentenced to 14 and 12 years in prison, respectively. They both played key roles in a Chinese activism group which sought more scrutiny for government transparency.

A police officer walks past placards of detained rights activists, including Xu, taped on the fence of the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong on February 19, 2020
Xu was detained after writing an open letter criticizing President Xi Jinping's response to crises China was facing at the timeImage: Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images

A Chinese court on Monday sentenced two prominent rights activists to lengthy jail terms of over ten years each, after years in pre-trial detention for the crime of "subversion of state power."

Activist Xu Zhiyong, 50, was sentenced to 14 years in prison and 55-year-old Ding Jiaxi to 12 years, after a trial which New York-based Human Rights Watch said was "conducted behind closed doors and riddled with procedural problems and allegations of mistreatment."

The two activists had played key roles in the New Citizens' Movement, which advocated greater transparency into officials' wealth, civil rights and education equality.

Both had been previously imprisoned for their activism.

Why were the activists arrested?

Ding was taken into police custody in December 2019, shortly after attending a secret gathering of activists in southern China's Fujian province. Xu was also reportedly at the gathering.

Ding's wife Luo Shengchun, who is US-based, said she was worried he might have faced torture while detained. His lawyer Peng Jian told the court he was routinely tortured to extract a confession, the Reuters news agency reported.

Luo has pursued the case with US State Department officials.

"I will not let them put Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong in jail so easily," she was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Luo added that the activists' lawyers were "forbidden" from publishing court verdict documents and that they "do not dare to reveal" the charges under which the duo was sentenced.

Sophie Luo testifies during a hearing before The Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) on February 3, 2022 in Washington DC, with a photo of her husband Ding Jiaxi is on display in the background.
Luo vowed to fight for Ding and Xu's freedomImage: Alex Wong/AFP/Getty Images

Xu was detained shortly after Ding in February 2020. He had just published a series of blog posts criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping for what he said was a heavy- handed approach to crises including the COVID-19 pandemic and the Hong Kong protests.

Authorities have prevented the lawyers from contact with foreign media, Luo said.

China's activists' state of affairs

Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, called on international governments to push for the activists' release.

"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 Wang.

Since Xi's ascent to power over a decade ago, China has been criticized for a dramatic clampdown on dissent. A July 2015 crackdown, known as "709" cases, saw hundreds of lawyers detained.

Beijing has rejected any criticism of its human rights record, maintaining that those jails are criminals punished for breaking the law.

rmt/rc (AFP, Reuters)

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