Beijing, China (HRW) – The Chinese government should quash the verdicts handed down by a court in Guangzhou sentencing three human rights activists to up to five years in prison. On January 29, 2016, the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court’s sentenced Tang Jingling, Yuan Xinting, and Wang Qingying to five, three-and-a-half, and two-and-a-half years respectively for “inciting subversion of state power.”
The three men were convicted for promoting the ideas of “non-violent civil disobedience” and of promoting peaceful transformation to democratic rule in gatherings of activists. The guilty verdicts and prison terms reflect the Chinese government’s politicized manipulation of the courts and its increasing hostility toward peaceful dissent.
“The Chinese government needs to stop equating peaceful criticism with subversion if it is to make any progress towards respecting rights,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The prosecution of three rights activists on such dubious charges shows how far Beijing needs to go.”
Guangzhou police apprehended Tang, Yuan, and Wang in May 2014, initially detaining them for “creating disturbances.” In June, the authorities formally arrested them on the more serious charge of “inciting subversion.” Tang, 44, a human rights lawyer, Yuan, 44, a freelance writer, and Wang, 33, a teacher, are well-known for having participated in many human rights activities in Guangdong Province over the past decade.
The case has been marred by multiple procedural violations and all three have been allegedly mistreated while in detention. According to Wang Qingying’s lawyer, Wang has been repeatedly beaten by fellow detainees and guards, forced to wear handcuffs and leg irons for 15 days, and subjected to forced labor every day. The authorities have also refused one of the lawyers’ requests to copy case material and denied the defendants’ right to communicate with their families. Tang Jingling was unable to meet with one of his lawyers for at least two months after he was taken into custody. The lawyers for all three have repeatedly been denied regular access to their clients. None were given adequate medical treatment when they were ill, nor allowed yard time for 15 months between May 2014 and September 2015 even though Detention Center Regulations require detainees be given time daily for outdoor activities.
On June 19, 2015, the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court began the trial but suspended proceedings after defense lawyers protested against procedural violations. It was resumed on July 23 and concluded the next day without a verdict. The three have now been in custody for 20 months.
The defense lawyers will be able to appeal the sentences though appeals courts in China rarely overturn verdicts in political cases.
According to article 105 of the People’s Republic of China Criminal Law, the crime of “inciting subversion” can carry up to five years in prison; the maximum penalty increases to 15 years in prison for those who are considered “ringleaders.”
The prosecution of Tang, Yuan, and Wang is part of the Chinese government’s broader crackdown on civil society launched shortly after President Xi Jinping formally assumed power in March 2013. Since then, the government has arbitrarily detained, arrested, and forcibly disappeared hundreds of activists, and further restricted freedom of expression especially on the Internet, in the media, and in universities. The government has also issued calls for stricter adherence to Communist Party ideology and for greater hostility toward “universal values” including human rights.
In July 2015, the government rounded up for interrogation nearly 300 lawyers, paralegals, law firm staff and activists who supported them in 24 provinces and municipalities. While most have since been released, 16 have been formally arrested, all but one for the crimes of “subversion” or “inciting subversion.” Seventeen others remain in police custody or have not been located.
“The sentences for Tang, Yuan, and Wang don’t bode well for the more than a dozen human rights lawyers likely to stand trial soon for similar ‘subversion’ charges,” Richardson said. “The authorities should step in and end these prosecutions now.”