China goes to court to target activists

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Originally published by Financial Times on March 16, 2015

China is sharply increasing its use of criminal prosecution as a tool for maintaining control in 2014, two reports have found, in a shift away from ad hoc measures preferred in the past.

The past few years have seen a crackdown on dissent in the midst of a political consolidation drive and anti-corruption purge, with long jail sentences meted out to well-known and moderate activists including lawyer Xu Zhiyong and Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti.

Chinese Human Rights Dfenders, a Hong Kong-based group that tracks activists on the mainland, said in a report on Monday that criminal detentions for cases it follows had nearly doubled to 442 in 2014, while administrative detentions had risen to 358 from 224 the year before.

However, these figures may considerably understate the true extent of the crackdown given the opaque nature of China’s system.

Individuals who might previously have been prosecuted under political charges such as subversion were now more likely to face time for “creating a disturbance” or “gathering a crowd to disrupt order of a public place”, CHRD noted.

Dui Hua, a San Francisco-based group that follows prisoners’ rights, published similar findings in a report last week on trials in Xinjiang, an ethnically divided region on China’s Central Asian border. It found that the number of cases of “endangering state security” were flat at about 300, while the number of criminal trials had soared by 40 per cent to 29,511.

Hundreds of people died in Xinjiang last year in knife and bomb attacks, clashes with police and other incidents, according to Chinese media reports and exile groups. Foreign reporters attempting to report in Xinjiang are usually immediately expelled from the region.

China last year formally abolished “re-education through labour”, a tool dating back to the early communist era that allowed police to imprison people in labour camps for up to three years without charge. Police are also less likely than in the past to use “soft detention” methods such as house arrest, CHRD noted.

One of those who has been detained for several months already without trial is Pu Zhiqiang, the Chinese lawyer who led the campaign against re-education through labour.

At the time of his detention following a private commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the June 4 1989 crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square, Mr Pu was planning a campaign against the extralegal detention of officials by anti-corruption investigators, friends say.

Hundreds of thousands of officials and businesspeople have been investigated during the anti-corruption campaign, with many of them detained without charge.

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