Human rights in China

Chinese rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang convicted, but to be released soon after receiving three-year suspended jail sentence

He was convicted of charges of stirring ethnic hatred and provoking trouble

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 December, 2015, 10:26am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 August, 2016, 10:45am

A Beijing court on Tuesday handed down a three-year suspended jail sentence to Pu Zhiqiang, one of China’s most outspoken human rights lawyers, for posting online comments critical of the Communist Party.

Pu would be released in days but would no longer able to practise law, his lawyer Shang Baojun said.

The Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court found Pu, 50, guilty of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” but gave him a three-year reprieve, Shang said. Pu’s lawyer’s licence would be permanently revoked as convicted lawyers were barred from practising, he said.

Read more: Chinese rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang pays price for beliefs as he gets three-year suspended jail term over social media posts slamming the authorities

“To be incriminated over one’s speech in seven microblog messages –this is a very heavy price indeed,” Shang said.

The suspended sentence means Pu will be on probation for three years, legal experts say. If he violates the terms of the sentence or commits offences within those three years, he will have to serve his original sentence, they said.

Pu would be put under “residential surveillance” detention during the official period of appeal over the next 10 days, but would be released after that, Shang said. He said Pu would not appeal: “He believes history will make a judgment.”

The ordeal of Pu, famed for defending dissidents and rights activists, is widely seen as a political case to silence him and to warn other rights advocates against speaking up.

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

Xinhua reported that the court handed down a “light” sentence after Pu “proactively confessed to his crimes and showed remorse”, and claimed that Pu told the court “he has experienced the progress of rule of law, the improvement of the law and progress of society”, but Shang said Pu had never pleaded guilty.

“Throughout all the legal proceedings, I have never heard him admitting to being guilty,” he said.

At his trial last Monday, Pu admitted that his online comments were “sharp, caustic and sometimes vulgar” and offered to apologise to those who were offended, but insisted his actions had not warranted the charges.

Pu’s conviction was based on 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 quoted the court as saying that 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 re-tweeted 2,500 times and commented on 1,300 times, and therefore had “provoked internet users’ strong ethnic hatred and confrontation feelings”, while his behaviour had “posed social danger that has reached a serious level”.

The court said Pu had continued to post “provocative” messages regardless of warnings from the internet censor and concluded that his behaviour amounted to “inciting ethnic hatred”.

On the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, the court said that since 2011 Pu had posted microblog messages four times to insult “various people” and his messages were re-tweeted 900 times and attracted 500 comments, “sparking large numbers of insulting commentaries and negative rhetoric”.

It said this had resulted in “psychological damage”, had “lowered [people’s] opinions of society”, and created “chaos in the cyberspace” and a “bad influence in society” and his behaviour had “gravely disrupted social order” so his actions amounted to the charge.

Human Rights Watch’s China director Sophie Richardson said the sentencing of Pu was a “political imperative clearly designed to silence him”.

Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director for East Asia, said Pu’s sentence was “a face-saving solution” for the authorities in the absence of wrongdoings.

Pu’s 19-month detention and the stripping of his lawyer’s licence had already achieved the goal of silencing him, while the suspended sentence with restrictions on Pu’s freedom allowed the authorities to control him and avert condemnation, Bequelin said. “There will be a permanent Sword of Damocles above his head for the next three years,” he said.

Pu was taken into custody in May last year after he attended a private gathering to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. Pu, who suffers from diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, had no family access over the 19 months he was in detention and was refused bail.