Chinese rights activist first among those in massive crackdown to get jail term as wife claims she was barred from trial
Zhai Yanmin sentenced to three years, suspended for four years, but wife questions if trial followed ‘rule of law’
A mainland court convicted a human rights advocate on Tuesday for subverting state power in the first trial following a massive crackdown against lawyers and activists last year.
In a rare arrangement, the government allowed a few media outlets from outside the mainland, including the South China Morning Post, to cover the hearing of Zhai Yanmin, but the gesture of transparency wasn’t enough to reassure his wife, who was barred from attending, and called into question the legality of the proceedings.
The Tianjin No 2 Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Zhai, 55, to three years’ jail, suspended for four years, after a three-hour hearing. Roads near the court was sealed off and heavily guarded by police during the trial.
Zhai, a rights activist, pleaded guilty and was defended by a lawyer appointed by the government.
The hearing was the first of four days of trials involving four lawyers and activists. Also due in court are the director of the Beijing-based Fengrui Law Firm, Zhou Shifeng, and two other rights activists, Hu Shigen and Gou Hongguo. Hu, an underground church pastor, is expected to stand trial today.
Prosecutors claim Zhai – together with Zhou, Hu and another detained lawyer Li Heping – conspired and plotted to subvert state power, and had “established a systematic ideology, method and steps to achieve it”, according to state media.
Zhai confessed he and his associates attempted to escalate social unrest to allow overseas elements to intervene and launch a “colour revolution”, the reports said. Zhai became influenced by Hu after joining his underground church and started organising petitions and instigating public hatred against the government, according to the reports.
Prosecutors said Zhai, Zhou, Hu and Li had discussed how to engage in labour rights movements at a restaurant gathering in February last year. It was alleged Hu talked about how a growing civil society and participation of foreign elements could transform a country.
Zhai proposed sending followers to join labour movements to challenge the government, according to prosecutors.
In his final statement to the court, Zhai said he wanted to remind the public to be aware of the “true meaning behind the slogans about democracy and human rights”.
He also promised to avoid speaking to foreign media. He said he would not appeal.
His wife, Lin Ermin, said the authorities did not inform her about the ruling, and she never had access to the government-appointed lawyer. Neither was she allowed to attend the hearing.
Given that Zhai received a suspended sentence, they could be reunited soon, but Lin maintained the ruling was “totally unacceptable”.
“I have to appeal,” she told the Post. “Even if he may be out of jail soon, what is the use of this? He cannot speak and what is the point to just being able to eat? How different is that from being dead?
“I could not attend the hearing and the lawyer I engaged could not take part in the process. I haven’t even seen the warrant – can this be called the rule of law?”
The Ministry of Public Security invited four Hong Kong-based media outlets and one from Taiwan to attend the hearing. A brief interview with Zhai after the sentencing was arranged by the authorities.
He told reporters he first thought he would be jailed for more than 10 years.
“I would not have been able to see my 97-year-old father again in my life in that case.”
No family member attended the hearing, but Zhai claimed that was his choice. “I made a call to tell my family not to come, in case they couldn’t accept the verdict,” he said.
When asked when he would see his family, he said: “I’m not able to reach them now.”
However, his wife said she had not been able to contact him since he was detained.
When speaking of his 27-year-old son, Zhai appeared emotional and wiped tears from his eyes, saying they had a troubled relationship as a result of his years-long fight for human rights.
Zhai left in the company of courtroom officials after speaking with the reporters.
Zhai was one of a group of activists detained on June 15, 2015, the day after they held a protest outside the Weifang City People’s Court in Shandong province during the trial of Xu Yonghe, a civil servant the protesters said had been wrongfully accused of “corruption”.
Widely known as the 709 crackdown, the massive campaign started on July 9 last year, resulting in the detention of about 300 human rights lawyers and activists. Nearly two dozen remain in detention and face charges of varying severity.