Libel case a test of rights, say lawyers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 12:00am

Reflecting on four-day hearing, they see it as a battle for the freedom to criticise

A four-day hearing of a libel lawsuit against the authors of a best-selling book on the plight of peasants has turned into a battle for farmers' rights and the freedom to criticise the work of officials, one of the defendants' lawyers said.

The hearing, extended several times, ended at 9pm yesterday. The court in Fuyang, Anhui province, reserved judgment.

Zhang Xide , vice-chairman of the People's Political Consultative Committee, is suing the writers of An investigative Report of Chinese Peasants, Chen Guidi and his wife Wu Chuntao, and the book's publisher, for defamation. More than 150,000 copies of the book have been sold since its release in January, and a further 7 million counterfeit copies are also believed to have been sold. The authorities imposed a ban on the book's sale, and on media reports about it, in March.

The book covers a period when Mr Zhang was Communist Party secretary in Linquan county, Anhui. It says he ignored the complaints of farmers, imposed extortionate fees on them in the name of birth control, and ordered a military crackdown in Wangying village in 1994. It says he was so unpopular he was seized and beaten by villagers when he left the county in 1996.

To prove his reputation as a 'good county party boss', he submitted 30 government documents and minutes of eight government meetings to the court. He also had written or oral testimony in his support from 27 witnesses, all but five government officials like him.

In their closing remarks, lawyers representing Chen and Wu said the trial was not a simple defamation case but a litmus test of farmers' rights and an occasion to promote the freedom to criticise officials' performance.

Defence lawyer Pu Zhiqiang accused officials of using the court to suppress criticism of them. 'In the four days of the trial, we saw the entire leadership of Linquan county under Mr Zhang,' he said. 'It is a battle between a party of people with vested interests and the farmers.

'If these officials in Linquan are so arrogant in the court, what would they be like when they face the farmers?' he said, referring to many occasions when officials refused to answer lawyers' questions.

All the witnesses for the defendants were farmers, many of them victims of incidents mentioned in the book. Among them was a cripple, Zhang Xiaoyang, whose goat was taken away because his neighbour had more children then allowed by the government, the book says. He was later ordered to undergo three years' re-education through labour for slapping Mr Zhang during the farmers' attack on him in 1996.

Another defence lawyer, Lei Yanping, said criticisms of officials should not be considered slander.

'If you cannot bear your name being mentioned in criticisms, then you'd better go home and be an ordinary citizen,' she said.

Asked by Mr Pu if he was apologetic after hearing what the farmers endured when he was Linquan party boss, Mr Zhang said: 'No.'

He also criticised the book as provoking farmers to oppose officials.