Head of Beijing law firm gets seven years as crackdown on rights activists continues
Zhou Shifeng, whose practice took on prominent rights cases, is convicted of subversion in Tianjin court
The former director of a Beijing law firm at the centre of a sweeping government crackdown on human rights activists last year was sentenced to seven years in jail for subversion on Thursday.
Zhou Shifeng, 51, was the first lawyer to face trial among the two dozen human rights activists and lawyers formally arrested last July. About 300 suspects were detained or interrogated in the so-called 709 crackdown, named after the date of the first arrests on July 9 last year.
Zhou pleaded guilty to subverting state power and pledged no appeal after a hearing lasting less than three hours at the Tianjin No 2 Intermediate People’s Court yesterday morning.
The court ruled that Zhou had on many occasions made comments online and in person to “attack the socialist system, the fundamental policy of one country, two systems, and to incite confrontation against state power”.
He was also guilty of ordering his staff and other lawyers to “hype up sensitive cases to discredit judicial authorities, attack the country’s judicial system and incite hostility towards state power” through representing the cases, the court heard.
Zhou made a 10-minute impromptu final statement, which the judge halted after several attempts to interject.
“I apologise to all 90 million members of the Communist Party” and the government, he said, adding that “the legal system and democracy of China’s is so much beyond that of the Western rule of law and it’s much beyond that of the United States”.
“I will never appeal!” he said, pumping his fist into his seat.
Like the hearings of the other two rights advocates Zhai Yanmin and Hu Shigen held by the same court this week, none of Zhou’s relatives were present at the trial. Zhai and Hu’s family said they were barred from the hearings and escorted home by authorities.
The night before Zhou’s trial, the Tianjin court posted a handwritten letter attributed to Zhou saying it was his own wish that his family should not attend his trial, citing their “low educational levels” as peasants.
But lawyers said the court had no legal ground to exclude family members from the courtroom, regardless of Zhou’s wishes.
Liu Xiaoyuan, a rights lawyer and former colleague of Zhou, said the right of relatives to attend an open trial is stipulated in the courtroom rules issued by the Supreme People’s Court.
He said Liu was given a “very harsh sentence”, given that “he had not committed the same crime before and showed a good attitude in pleading guilty”.
Like Zhai and Hu’s cases, the government appointed a defence lawyer for Zhou.
The Fengrui law firm headed by Zhou in Beijing employed nearly 100 lawyers at its peak and has handled many sensitive cases.
It represented victims of the scandal involving melamine-contaminated infant formula in 2008, dissident artist Ai Weiwei, blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and ethnic Uygur scholar Ilham Tohti.
Two witnesses were summoned to testify against Zhou – Huang Liqun, a former colleague at his law firm, and rights activist Zhai Yanmin, who was handed a suspended three-year sentence for subversion on Tuesday.
Both Zhai and Huang were detained in the massive crackdown last July. The two witnesses alleged that Zhou used sensitive cases to instil public resentment of the Communist Party and the government.
Prosecutors accused Zhou of “being influenced for a long time by the infiltration of anti-China forces and gradually developing the idea of overturning the country’s current political system”.
A prosecutor read out a written statement by Zhou in court, which stated: “I have attracted the interest of foreign consulates and NGOs ... Their ultimate goal is to overturn the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Amnesty International said the series of convictions this week showed that the Chinese government wanted to “silence anyone who raises legitimate questions about human rights and uses the legal system to seek redress”.
“This wave of trials against lawyers and activists is a political charade. Their fate was sealed before they stepped into the courtroom,” said Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director for Amnesty International.
Gou Hongguo, the fourth and last defendant in this week’s trials, will stand trial on Friday.