Behind Closed Doors, Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi Stand Trial for Subversion of State Power

Last week, prominent civil rights defenders Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi were put on trial behind closed doors on charges of subversion. The trials took place on Wednesday and Friday, respectively, in the Linshu County People’s Court, Shandong province, and ended without verdicts, which are expected to be issued at a later date. At the South China Morning Post, Mimi Lau and Guo Rui described the charges brought against Xu and Ding:

The pair have been held behind bars for more than two years. They were arrested soon after attending an activist gathering in southern Fujian province in December 2019.

[…] According to an indictment issued by the municipal prosecutor’s office in Linyi last year, Xu was charged with subverting state power for leading a “citizens’ movement” together with Ding.

Under the Chinese criminal code, the maximum penalty for subverting state power is life in prison.

The two are accused of recruiting a network of people to produce an “illegal” documentary, set up websites and publish subversive articles, and of organising “secret meetings” for the purpose of overturning the state. [Source]

Their judicial treatment has been far from fair, as neither defendant has been permitted sufficient access to lawyers, and their relatives and supporters have been barred from attending the trials. Prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Teng Biao argued that “Such a political case has nothing to do with the law or evidence. The whole trial process is dominated by political forces behind the court.” Reporting on these cases for The Washington Post, Christian Shepherd described the “opaque legal process designed to conceal from people the plight of the country’s human rights defenders”:

Luo Shengchun, Ding’s wife who now lives in the United States, described the process as having taken place in “pitch darkness.” Her husband’s lawyers said they could not provide her additional information about the case. Supporters who tried to attend the trial were thrown out of their hotel rooms in the middle of the night. All Luo received was a text message informing her that the hearing was taking place.

“It’s getting ever worse,” she said in an interview. “The power of defense lawyers has been stripped to zero, and every step of the way they must sign a nondisclosure agreement. Even calling this case a state secret has no legal basis, because all they did was organize two private gatherings. Yes, they talked about human rights, but that should be allowed under freedom of speech.”

[… The] hearing on Wednesday proceeded in almost complete silence. [Xu’s] lawyers, under threat of disbarment, were unable to speak to the press. Calls from fellow Chinese human rights lawyers for Xu’s and Ding’s trials to be open to the public were ignored. The courthouse did not release any statements about the hearings. [Source]

Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi have long endured judicial harassment for their lifelong promotion of civil rights and the rule of law. They are perhaps best known as leading figures of the “New Citizens Movement” that aimed to promote transparency, civic engagement, and enforcement of the civil and human rights purportedly guaranteed by China’s constitution. In the months following an informal meeting that they organized to discuss these issues with colleagues in the town of Xiamen in December 2019, security forces hunted down and apprehended many of the participants. Ding was detained later that month, and Xu was detained in February of 2020 and formally arrested in June. There was speculation that the pair would be tried during the Christmas season of 2021, although that did not materialize.

As the NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders has documented, UN experts have deemed Xu and Ding’s detentions as arbitrary under international law, and both men have made credible allegations of having been tortured during their detention:

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has examined the cases of the detentions of both Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, and in both instances found that the detentions were arbitrary under provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that the appropriate remedy would be immediate and unconditional release and the right to compensation. 

[…] Both Ding and Xu have credibly alleged that they were tortured while they were held in China’s notorious secret detention system known as “residential surveillance in a designated location” (RSDL). 

From April 1-8, 2020, Ding was fastened to a “tiger chair,” with his back tightly tied to the chair, and with a band tightly tied around his chest, which inhibited regular breathing. Every day Ding was interrogated for 21 hours – from 9am to 6am the next morning. From 6am to 9am, he was allowed to use the bathroom and eat, but he was not allowed to sleep. Officials utilized these torture methods 24 hours a day. By the morning of April 7, due to sitting in the tiger chair for so long, Ding’s feet had swollen up into round balls and he was physically depleted. In his first interrogation sessions, authorities gave Ding Jiaxi extremely limited quantities of food and water: one quarter of a mantou (a bland Chinese bun), and 600ml of water, with no other food.

[…] Similarly, authorities in Yantai, Shandong tied Xu Zhiyong’s arms and legs to an “tiger chair” while interrogating him for 10-plus hours per day, making it difficult for him to breathe. Each meal consisted of only one mantou and Xu was taken to the interrogation chambers in a black hood. [Source]

This past Sunday, June 26, was the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, and many NGOs have spoken out against the arbitrary arrest and illegal treatment of Xu and Ding. “The Chinese government is making a grave and shameful mistake by proceeding with the trial of Xu Zhiyong,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, director of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center at PEN America, who called for Xu’s release. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), stated that it “strongly condemns the alleged acts of torture and ill-treatment to which Mr. Ding Jiaxi and Mr. Xu Zhiyong were subjected while in detention […,] strongly condemns the closed-door trial of Mr. Xu Zhiyong and Mr. Ding Jiaxi, and urges the authorities to immediately release them.” An Amnesty International press release also criticized the arbitrary detentions of the pair

“The Chinese authorities have targeted Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi not because they committed any internationally recognized crime, but simply because they hold views the government does not like. These unfair trials are an egregious attack on their human rights,” said Amnesty International’s China Campaigner Gwen Lee.

“Having faced torture and other ill-treatment during their arbitrary detention, Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi now face being sentenced to years behind bars in secretive trials that have been rigged from the start.”

[…] “These men’s bravery in defending the human rights of others should be commended, not punished. Xu continued to loudly advocate for disadvantaged groups even after being jailed for it, and spoke out about the government’s handling of Covid-19 when others remained silent,” Gwen Lee said.

“The Chinese government is systematically using national security charges with extremely vague provisions, such as “subverting state power”, to unjustly prosecute lawyers, scholars, journalists, human rights activists and NGO workers among many others.”

[…] “Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi have been targeted solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedoms of opinion and association. They must be immediately released,” Gwen Lee said. [Source]

Their trials also generated protests, led by Ding’s wife Luo Shengchun, that took place online and in front of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. The French and British embassies in China, along with U.S. government officials, called on the Chinese government to release Xu and Ding. After it was published, the French embassy’s Weibo post on Xu Zhiyong appeared to have been censored.

A number of other Chinese human rights defenders remain in detention. Xu’s partner, Li Qiaochu, a labor rights and feminist activist, was indicted in February on the charge of subversion and does not yet have a trial date. Human rights lawyer Chang Weiping, who participated in the Xiamen gathering with Xu and Ding, also remains in detention and has reportedly been subjected to repeated torture. Authorities have prevented his lawyer from reading his case files or from meeting with his client. 

Journalist and #MeToo activist Huang Xueqin and labor-rights advocate Wang Jianbing have been in detention since September of last year, and in March, both were charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” On Monday, the International Women’s Media Foundation awarded Huang the Wallis Annenberg Justice for Women Journalists Award.

On Saturday, in a bereavement symbolic of China’s hostile atmosphere for rights defenders under Xi Jinping, veteran Chinese defense lawyer Zhang Sizhi passed away at the age of 94. Among the first lawyers to practice law in the newly formed People’s Republic of China, Zhang became famous for leading the defense team for the “Gang of Four” and others who had been closely affiliated with the late CCP vice-chairman Lin Biao. Zhang was dubbed “the conscience of Chinese lawyers” for his promotion of human rights. As described by Josephine Ma from the South China Morning Post, “His fearless persistence in upholding the impartiality of the legal profession over many decades won him […] respect among lawyers and intellectuals inside and outside China”:

In the decades following the landmark trials, Zhang represented defendants in many sensitive cases that no other mainland lawyers dared to touch, including famous dissident Wei Jingsheng; Wang Juntao, accused of being one of the “black hands” behind the 1989 Tiananmen student protests; and Bao Tong, secretary to reform-minded former party chief Zhao Ziyang.

[…] Zhang also spoke out openly against the sentencing of dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo in 2009, calling it “absurd” and a “political judgment”.

[…] In December 2008, at a ceremony in Berlin, Germany’s then justice minister, Brigitte Zypries, presented Zhang with the Petra Kelly Prize from the Heinrich Boell Foundation for his “exceptional commitment to human rights and establishment of the rule of law in China”.

[…] “His pleas prove that, especially in trials against members of the opposition, the Chinese legal system is far from fair. His life mirrors perfectly the very contradictory development of the People’s Republic of China. In a unique way, he has been responsible for shaping China’s difficult path towards democracy and the rule of law.” [Source]

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