Tuesday, 22 December 2015

A Heavy Price for Free Speech

Pu Zhiqiang will be released soon, but cannot practice law again
Human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was handed a three-year suspended jail sentence for posting online comments that were critical of the Communist Party. While he will be released in days, he will not be allowed to practice law again.

The Beijing Second Intermediate People's Court found Pu, 50, guilty of "inciting ethnic hatred" and "picking quarrels and provoking trouble", according to a report by Xinhua news agency.

According to legal experts, the suspended jail sentence means Pu will be put on probation for three years and if he violates the terms or commits offenses in the next three years, he will have to serve his original sentence.

His lawyer, Shang Baojun says lawyers who have been convicted have their lawyer's license revoked. "To be incriminated over one's speech in seven microblog messages -- this is a very heavy price indeed," Shang said.

Amnesty International said the suspended jail sentence was "a deliberate attempt by the Chinese authorities to shackle a champion of freedom of expression".

However, Xinhua said the court handed down a light sentence because Pu "pro-actively confessed to his crimes and showed remorse". It added Pu would not appeal.

We do not know exactly what happened in the court room, but we do know last week that he was adamant about rejecting the charges against him. So what happened between then and now is unclear.

He was convicted on the basis of the content of seven microblog messages that were critical of the government's handling of an ethnic conflict in Kunming, Yunnan province last year, and sarcastic comments about two officials.

Xinhua reported the court said between January 2012 and May 2014, Pu posted messages eight times on various Weibo accounts "to stir ethnic relations and incite ethnic hatred". It said his messages were retweeted 2,500 times and had 1,300 comments, and thus had "provoked internet users' strong ethnic hatred and confrontation feelings", and his behaviour had "posed social danger that has reached a serious level".

As a result, this had caused "psychological damage", and had "lowered [people's] opinions of society", and created "chaos in cyberspace" and a "bad influence in society", and his behaviour had "gravely disrupted social order".

The court makes it sound like Pu was someone disseminating hate literature. While reposting his message 2,500 times is a lot, when compared relative to the number of people in China, it's not a big exposure.

Nevertheless, Xinhua said Pu apologized and showed his willingness to accept punishment during the trial. It added that Pu told the court that through his ordeal, "he has experienced the progress of rule of law, the improvement of the law, and progress of society"...

Was his trial a sign of progress of rule of law in China? The lawyer who suffers from diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, was detained for 19 months without trial and no access to his family.

Beijing has effectively silenced yet another of its critics in a harsh way. He will be made into an example for others to conform even more to the Party line.

But China needs people like him to point out the country's flaws that must be addressed and dealt with. He and others like him want to hold the government accountable so that it will be a more effective one.

How will China's civil society ever be able to flourish when it is so badly needed now?

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