Prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng has been sentenced to four years in prison on charges of inciting subversion of state power.
Yu was detained in January 2018, hours after he provided journalists with a letter calling for constitutional reform.
“This is a secret trial,” Yu’s wife Xu Yan told VOA Wednesday. “They didn’t tell me anything earlier regarding the legal procedure, I was ‘informed’ of the decision today.”
She added that during the whole time Yu remained in detention, only his defense lawyer was allowed to meet with him twice. She had only seen a video of her husband since 2018.
Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, said that Yu’s sentencing is nothing but a political persecution dressed up as legal process.
“Not only was Yu prosecuted under baseless charges for the lawful and legitimate work he was conducting as a lawyer, his own lawyer was not even permitted to attend the sentencing hearing,” he said in a statement.
He added that the secret sentencing once again illustrates the Chinese government’s zero-tolerance policy towards critics and called for immediate and unconditional release of Yu.
Yu has been a persistent voice for reforms in China. Despite the country’s increasing severe crackdown on civil society since 2015, the lawyer has represented fellow human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang and Falun Gong practitioners, among others.
In early 2018, Yu had circulated an open letter calling for five reforms to China’s constitution, including the institution of multi-candidate presidential elections.
“Designating the nation’s president, as head of state, through a single party election has no meaning as an election,” he wrote. “It has no power to win confidence from the nation, civil society, or the world’s various countries.”
It is this call for democracy that resulted in his sentence.
Yu’s wife told VOA she received a phone call from Xuzhou City prosecutors on Wednesday, informing her that her husband had been sentenced to four years’ imprisonment and a further three years’ deprivation of political rights. The prosecutors added that Yu Wensheng will be appealing against the sentence.
“But the person who called refused to give me his name and title, and I only confirm Yu’s sentence later with his lawyer, who was appointed by the court officials,” she told VOA.
“I do not accept this sentence and express my strong protest against their secret sentencing,” she said. “This is a serious violation of the law.”
VOA tried to reach judge Liu Mingwei from Xuzhou Intermediate People's Court who had announced Yu’s sentence, but he was not available. Yu’s lawyer Zhao Qiang told VOA he cannot accept interview requests from a foreign media outlet.
It remains unclear when authorities actually sentenced him.
Meanwhile, VOA has learned that the wife of another prominent dissident has been repeatedly harassed by local officials.
Wang Zang, an outspoken poet, was arrested on May 30 on charges of “inciting subversion of state.” His family doesn't have any information about his whereabouts despite multiple visits to the local police station.
Since then, his family says they have lost some measure of their freedom also.
“Now 12-15 people just wonder around my building, there are four cars parked outside,” his wife Wang Li told VOA. “I’m under 24 hour surveillance. They took away my bank cards and my ID card, life is getting really hard.”
Born in 1985 in Yunnan Province, Wang Zang is an outspoken freelance writer and artist critical of repressive government policies. He promoted free speech and democracy through his artwork and expressed support for detained activists. Authorities have repeatedly questioned Wang about his art performances, poetry, and social media postings in support of persecuted activists, lawyers, and political prisoners.
China’s civil society and rights movement has been under increasing pressure since President Xi Jingping took office in 2012. More than 200 Chinese human rights lawyers and activists were detained or questioned in a police sweep in 2015 that rights groups called “unprecedented.”