Friday, August 25, 2006

One step sideways, two steps back

Two closely watched human rights cases with different outcomes:
A blind activist who drew international attention by exposing China's harsh family planning policies was sentenced by a court Thursday to four years and three months in prison, the official New China News Agency reported.

Chen Guangcheng was tried last week, without his own attorney present, on charges of damaging property and "organizing a mob to disturb traffic." He was represented at his two-hour trial by a pair of court-appointed lawyers he had never met...

...The harsh treatment of the self-taught lawyer and a recent slew of incidents involving the arrest or intimidation of attorneys fighting against official abuse suggest that the Communist Party is worried about losing control over an increasingly vocal legal community.
This case is particularly outrageous given the nature of incidents for which Chen was charged:
Chen had slipped into the home of another villager and hidden there for about 20 days. Officials allegedly beat the villager after failing to get him to turn Chen in. In reaction, Chen and about five others attempted to walk to a village official's office. They were followed by up to 60 guards who tried to stop them.

"They charged my brother with blocking traffic, but most of the people doing the blocking were their own men," said Chen's brother, who was one of three family members allowed to attend the trial last week.

The brother said that no one was allowed to speak in Chen's behalf at the trial and that the two court-appointed lawyers didn't object to anything the prosecutors said. Chen, he said, repeatedly tried to protest the validity of the trial and threw up several times in court.

"Our lawyers have received death threats, we've been arrested and accused of theft," said Teng Biao, one of Chen's lawyers. "When we tried to visit the village in July, they turned our car over with two attorneys still inside. The entire village remains sealed off. The phone lines are cut off. They don't want us to meet or speak to any of the relatives. This verdict today has no legal basis whatsoever."
Meanwhile, a case involving a jailed New York Times researcher had a slightly better outcome — in that journalist Zhao Yan was acquitted of the more serious of the two charges facing him, leaking state secrets. Zhao was convicted of fraud, a charge which seems dubious at best:
The New China News Agency said the fraud charge stemmed from an incident in 2001, which was before Zhao was hired by the New York Times. He was convicted of taking money on a false promise of interceding to get a man's sentence thrown out, the agency said. Zhao, his lawyers and his family denied the charge.

"We welcome the court's decision on the first charge, that there was not enough evidence proving Zhao leaked state secrets," said Guan Anping, one of the newspaper's lawyers in the case.

"That shows they did rule according to the law and that rule of law is becoming more established. We're glad to see it," the lawyer said. "But we don't agree with the second [fraud] charge. We maintain Zhao is innocent."

Because Zhao has already been detained for almost two years, he is scheduled for release in September 2007. His legal team said it was considering whether to appeal the decision, given that an appeal could take nearly a year.

Zhao's family also expressed displeasure with the case, which had its share of legal irregularities, even by Chinese standards. At one point it appeared the charges had been dropped, only to be revived.

"I'm not satisfied with the verdict," said Zhao Kun, the researcher's older sister. "I think he's completely innocent."
Many foreign governments and press groups had taken up Zhao's cause, and it's possible that such international pressure may have played a role in Zhao's acquittal of the state secrets charge, for which he could have spent a decade or more in prison.

Chen Guangcheng's lawyers, who had hoped for minimum or no jail time, consider his sentence unexpectedly harsh.
Taken together, the verdicts suggest that China can be marginally swayed by foreign appeals when a case has limited domestic impact, said Xiao Qiang, director of the Berkeley China Internet Project at UC Berkeley. When the state feels its control is challenged, however, Beijing all but ignores foreign opinion, he added.

"In those cases, international pressure means nothing," he said.

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