Religion in China

Chinese Christian rights lawyer accused of ‘masterminding illegal religious gatherings’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 February, 2016, 12:11pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 January, 2017, 1:31pm

A well-known rights lawyer has appeared on state television confessing to crimes after a months-long disappearance, the latest case in the country’s widening crackdown on dissent.

Zhang Kai had represented a group of Christians who were detained for suspected financial crimes last year after they resisted the demolition of crosses.

Heavily Christian Wenzhou, in Zhejiang, was the site of protests in 2014 over a government campaign to demolish crosses.

On a news programme on state-controlled Wenzhou TV on Thursday night, Zhang confessed to encouraging Christians to come together to “protect their rights” after the authorities removed crosses from churches.

“I really regret doing these things, I feel very remorseful,” Zhang said. “These things violated China’s law and violated my personal integrity as a lawyer, and they harmed societal structure and national security.”

Police in Wenzhou could not be reached for comment, and Zhang’s location was not clear.

In October, US Secretary of State John Kerry said Zhang, who had represented Christian groups, was detained shortly before a planned meeting in August with David Saperstein, the US ambassador for international religious freedom, who was visiting China.

Suspects accused of crimes in high-profile cases are often shown confessing on state television. Rights groups have said these confessions, which usually take place long before a trial, violate the accused’s right to due process.

Authorities in the region have said crosses were removed because they violated regulations against illegal structures. Rights groups say demolishing crosses restricts Christianity and religious freedoms.

China officially guarantees freedom of religion though authorities are sometimes suspicious of religious groups. State-run website Wenzhou Online said Zhang had been identified as the “mastermind” behind a series of “illegal religious gatherings”, citing information from the city’s public security bureau.

READ MORE: Authorities holding Chinese lawyer who helped Christians fight cross take-downs, friend says

It accused him of “accepting foreign training”, “encouraging people to confront the government”, and cheating people out of money, among other claims.

The website quoted his alleged confession.

“I also warn those so-called human rights lawyers to take me as a warning and not collude with foreigners, take money from foreign organisations or be engaged in activities that break the law or harm national security and interests,” he continued, according to the report.

The Communist Party has reasserted controls over civil society since President Xi Jinping took power, detaining more than 130 human rights lawyers and legal staff over the past year. A top Chinese pastor came under investigation last month on suspicion of embezzling funds after he publicly opposed a cross removal campaign.

Experts say there are up to 60 million Protestants in China, divided between official and unregistered churches.

Reuters, Agence France-Presse