Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old former lawyer and citizen journalist in China, was sentenced to four years in prison in Shanghai on Monday for her reporting on the coronavirus outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan early this year. She didn’t immediately say if she would appeal the sentence, her lawyer, Zhang Keke, told CBS News.
During the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Zhang Zhan’s live reports and essays were widely shared on social media, grabbing the attention of authorities. She was fiercely critical of the government for its virus containment measures and eagerly sought answers to the silencing of whistleblowers and other citizen journalists.
Zhang was arrested in May and was officially convicted for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a vague charge often brought against activists and critics of the government in China.
Zhang’s trial on Monday lasted less than three hours. She was sentenced to four years in prison.
“The pronouncement of sentence in court was quite rare and unexpected,” said defense lawyer Zhang Keke. “It has something to do with the holiday timing in the West.”
China’s communist authorities have a history of putting dissidents on trial in opaque courts between Christmas and New Year’s to minimize Western scrutiny.
The trial comes just weeks before an international team of World Health Organization experts is expected to arrive in China to investigate the origins of COVID-19.
Zhang Keke told CBS News that during the trial, the prosecutor only read out the list of evidence, without showing most of it, including the core evidence, such as the videos and articles Zhang Zhan posted on social media platforms.
“The hearing was very hollow,” the lawyer said.
Attending the trial in wheelchair, Zhang Zhan was in poor health. “She barely spoke except for saying citizens’ speech should not be censored, to protest against the ‘illegal trial’,” said her lawyer.
When the sentence was announced, Zhang Zhan did not react with any words or facial expression, but her body moved slightly, suggesting “maybe she was shocked as well,” the lawyer said, adding that Zhang Zhan’s mother sobbed uncontrollably after the announcement of the sentence.
In praying for her daughter’s safe return, Zhang Zhan’s mother Shao Wenxia obeyed a police order to not give interviews with the media, but after the heavy sentence from court Monday, she regretted that decision and felt she was tricked by the authorities, according to lawyer Zhang.
“Four years is too heavy of a sentence, especially for an innocent person,” he said.
“Zhang Zhan thinks she will die in prison,” said Ren Quanniu, the other defense lawyer. “It’s an extreme method of protesting against this society and this environment.”
In protest of her arrest and indictment, Zhang Zhan began a prolonged hunger strike in June. To punish her and keep her alive, the authorities force-fed her through a feeding tube and restrained her hands 24 hours a day so she could not pull it out. Lawyer Zhang described her as “out of phase” when he visited her on Christmas Day, noting that she has lost 20 kg (about 44 pounds) since the beginning of detention in May.
Zhang’s hearing was supposed to be public, but supporters were denied entry to the courtroom, and police pushed journalists and observers away from the entrance as the defendant and her lawyer arrived.
“It’s a disguised form of ‘private hearing’,” said lawyer Zhang.
He told CBS News that the court will mail him the official verdict in five days and he will arrange to visit Zhang Zhan next week to discuss whether she wants to appeal.
Zhang Zhan is the first to face trial of a group of four citizen journalists whose work offered some of the only glimpses to the outside world of what was going on in Wuhan in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic – and who were subsequently detained by the Chinese government.
Fellow citizen journalist Chen Qiushi went missing in February, at about the same time as Li Zehua and Wuhan resident Fang Bin, both of whom also reported on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. The fourth, Li Zehua, was released in April.
Rights groups have also drawn attention to Zhang’s case. Authorities “want to use her case as an example to scare off other dissidents from raising questions about the pandemic situation in Wuhan earlier this year,” said Leo Lan, research and advocacy consultant at the Chinese Human Rights Defenders organization.
The United Nations human rights office also voiced concern, tweeting, “we raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020 as an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to #COVID19 & continue to call for her release.”