China Finds Activist Guilty of ‘Subversion,’ More Lawyer Trials to Follow

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Originally published by Radio Free Asia on August 2, 2016

A court in the northern city of Tianjin on Tuesday found a rights activist linked to prominent human rights lawyers guilty of subversion, as state media said he had “confessed” to being part of a foreign-inspired plot to overthrow the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Zhai Yanmin was handed a three-year prison term, suspended on condition of good behavior for four years, by the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court, which found him guilty of “incitement to subvert state power.”

Zhai pleaded guilty, and made a full “confession,” in court, state news agency Xinhua reported.

According to the court, Zhai was first inspired by the idea of a “color revolution” and a “peaceful transition” to democracy and constitutional government online, the court said in a statement.

“He then joined an underground church led by Hu Shigen and gradually developed plans to overthrow the state socialist system,” Xinhua quoted the court judgment as saying.

“Since 2012, Zhai has attempted to incite people to subvert state power by use of the online resources,” the court said.

The prosecution argued that he had developed, along with fellow activists Hu Shigen, Beijing Fengrui Law Firm boss Zhou Shifeng and rights lawyer Li Heping, had conspired and plotted to subvert state power, and had “established a systematic ideology, method and steps to achieve it.”

Zhai was accused of “organizing multiple mass protests to influence public opinion and court sentences,” particularly around the fatal shooting by Heilongjiang railway police of a man in May 2015.

Zhai was given a relatively lenient sentence in return for his “confession,” and for testifying against other defendants, Xinhua said.

“I accept all the charges,” it quoted him as saying in his final statement, “With the help and education of the government, I recognize the severity of my crimes. I plead guilty and express my sincere remorse.”

“I am sorry to the country and my family… If I could go back I would never have become a member of hostile forces or associated with those individuals driven by ulterior motives,” he said.

It said Zhai wanted to inform the public of the dangers of fighting for “democracy,” and “human rights.”

Confessed under duress

But Beijing-based human rights lawyer Chen Jiangang said Zhai had likely made the confession under duress.

“In a situation where a person has no human rights protection whatsoever, and has lost their liberty, it’s hardly surprising that they will confess to anything [to get out of that situation],” Chen said.

He said that while it was clear that Zhai had done a deal with the authorities, his confession didn’t mean he had committed any crime.

“Everyone knows that a deal was struck here, given the current state of the Chinese justice system,” Chen said.

While Xinhua reported that the trial had been conducted openly, with foreign and domestic news organizations present, Zhai’s wife Liu Ermin remained at the couple’s home under house arrest during the proceedings.

Several foreign journalists including the Associated Press and the BBC were denied access to the courtroom, reports said.

Guangdong-based rights lawyer Ge Wenxiu said he had been denied entry to the trial after traveling to Tianjin the day before.

“There is no way that you could call this an open trial,” Ge told RFA on Tuesday. “Several rights lawyers went to the Tianjin No. 2 court the day beforehand to apply to appear in his defense, because we were hired by Zhai Yanmin’s wife to defend him.”

“But they refused to recognize us as defense attorneys, and they wouldn’t even let us in through the main door,” Ge said.

“The defense lawyers had already been picked out by the authorities,” he said.

Refused entry

Shandong-based activist Zhao Wei, who is unrelated to the previously detained legal assistant whose name is similarly spelled in English, said he had traveled to the court in a bid to support Zhai, but had also been refused entry.

“There were so many police and plainclothes officers, as well as a checkpoint just opposite the court buildings,” Zhao said.

“They weren’t allowing any vehicles to pass the court, whether they were public transportation vehicles or private cars,” he said. “They wouldn’t allow pedestrians to walk past it either.”

“There were a couple of hundred police, including at the two nearby intersections,” he said. “The barriers on the road used to be fairly low, but they have recently swapped them for high ones, so you can’t climb over.”

According to Xinhua, Zhai said he hated the government and the political system because of a failed business venture, and had been “radicalized by people with ulterior motives.”

Zhai had met with 15 people, including Hu Shigen, Zhou Shifeng and Li Heping, in a Beijing restaurant on Feb. 1, 2015, to discuss ways to “overthrow the Communist Party,” the agency said.

Other trials to follow

The trials of Zhou, Hu and Gou Hongguo are likely to follow soon after Zhai’s according to the overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, which compiles reports from rights groups inside China.

Hu’s brother Hu Shuigen told RFA on Tuesday that his brother’s trial was expected soon, along with those of the other two defendants.

“The other trials will start on Wednesday, and run for four days,” Hu Shuigen said. “I think they will try Gou Hongguo [on Wednesday] and my brother the day after that. And the following day will be Zhou Shifeng,” he said.

“That’s what friends have been posting; one trial a day, one person a day, over four days,” he said.

He declined to comment on his brother’s case, however.

“We don’t really know what went on here; what they really did and what they didn’t do,” he said. “It’s really not for us to say.”

The trials come after a televised “confession” and subsequent release on bail of prominent Beijing rights lawyer Wang Yu earlier this week.

Wang, whose July 9, 2015 detention marked the start of a nationwide police operation targeting rights lawyers, law firm employees, and rights activists, was released on bail and remains at an unknown location.

The detentions of Wang, her husband Bao Longjun, and their colleagues at the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm later widened to include the detention and interrogation of more than 300 lawyers, paralegals, law firm employees, and rights activists.

Bao, Zhou, and 12 others are now under formal arrest on subversion-related charges, many of them in police-run detention centers in the northern city of Tianjin, where they have been denied access to their own lawyers.

Reported by Yang Fan for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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