Last updated on: November 30, 2012 1:00 PM
WASHINGTON — A court in eastern China has sentenced the nephew of rights activist Chen Guangcheng to prison, in a case the blind dissident says provides a discouraging look at the direction of China’s new leadership.
The Yinan County People's Court sentenced Chen Kegui Friday to three years and three months in prison for assaulting officials who stormed into his house looking for his uncle earlier this year. The incident followed Chen Guangcheng’s dramatic escape from house arrest in Shandong province.
The case is the latest chapter in a political drama that stirred tensions between Washington and Beijing and underscored China’s struggle with the rule of law.
Friday’s surprise trial and sentencing came six months after authorities detained Chen Kegui and held him incommunicado. Court officials initially charged him with murder for the incident in which he slashed and wounded three people with a kitchen knife, but relatives say that charge was downgraded because officials did not have enough evidence to prosecute it. Chen Kegui’s family says he acted in self-defense.
Court officials in Yinan were not available to comment on the case.
Hopes for reform dim
Chen Guangcheng told VOA his nephew’s sentencing dims his hopes for political and legal reform, just two weeks after the Communist Party named its next generation of leaders.
“Everybody has a high hope for the new leaders and we hope that they can do something. But right now, they have given us a very clear answer with their real act. They showed the whole world what kind of new leadership they are. By doing so, they have torn down their mask,” Chen Guangcheng said in a telephone interview Friday from New York.
The blind lawyer had spent 19 months under house arrest for exposing forced abortions and other wrongdoing by local officials, when he escaped to the U.S. Embassy in April. He moved to the United States to study in a deal worked out by U.S. and Chinese officials, in part to relieve diplomat tensions during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Chinese officials pledged at the time to investigate local authorities who kept Chen Guangcheng in extrajudicial detention after he’d already served prison time, and allegedly beat the activist and his family.
Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch, said those officials have failed to fulfill their promises.
"The man who was party secretary for Shandong when Chen Guangcheng was initially jailed has now been elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee,” she said. “So I think if you look at that particular individual's trajectory relative to Chen Guangcheng's case, as opposed to how these various legal proceedings have unfolded, these do not bode well for a predictable rule-based system inside China.”
Judging the justice system
Chen Kegui’s father, who learned of the trial just hours before it began, told VOA he did not believe the court’s announcement that his son would not appeal the verdict. Chen Guangfu said authorities “must have done some work” to force his son to accept his conviction.
Chen Guangcheng also speculated his nephew might have been tortured or, perhaps, had lost faith in the justice system.
Richardson said it is difficult to tell what is motivating Chen Kegui because his legal advisors were appointed by local officials.
“It's hard to know whether the people who were ostensibly representing Chen Kegui in court were actually acting in his best interest or in the interest of local officials, which is a problem that happens all the time in China,” she said.
Richardson added that the legal proceedings did not meet the minimum standards for a fair trial.
"To the extent this prosecution was a test of the rule of law in China, the rule of law lost,” she said.
China’s outgoing leaders have said cracking down on corruption and cleaning up the legal system are key priorities for the country, which they say will continue after they retire. The next set of leaders, who will serve for a decade, take office early next year.
Additional reporting by Sarah Williams.