Chinese courts on Friday ruled against a blind activist and a researcher for The New York Times in two cases that have attracted international attention as examples of government retribution against dissent.
The courts rejected an appeal from Zhao Yan, the Times researcher who reported on official corruption and peasant rights before he joined the newspaper. They upheld the four-year prison term of activist Chen Guangcheng, who documented cases of forced abortions.
“It’s just a very bad day for justice in China,” said Mickey Spiegel, a researcher for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch. “The decisions … have very little to do with justice and have everything to do with politics.”
The Beijing High Court delivered its judgment on Zhao’s appeal in a five-minute session, his lawyer Guan Anping said in a telephone interview.
“Do you have anything to say?” the judge asked Zhao according to a report on the Times Web site, which cited unnamed witnesses.
“What kind of judge are you?” Zhao answered. “Is this how you use the power the country gave you?”
Zhao was convicted of fraud in August and sentenced to three years in prison, but he was acquitted of a more serious charge of revealing state secrets, which could have resulted in a 10-year prison term.
His case comes amid efforts by China’s communist government to tighten controls on the media. Dozens of reporters have been harassed and jailed, often on charges of violating the country’s vague secrecy and security laws.
Last week, the Beijing High Court rejected an appeal by a Hong Kong reporter working for Singapore’s The Straits Times newspaper jailed by the mainland on spying charges.
The New York Times had no immediate comment on Friday’s ruling but said it would issue a statement later.
Meanwhile, the Yinan County court in Shandong province upheld its decision to sentence Chen, who was blinded by a fever in infancy and taught himself law in order to fight discrimination against himself and handicapped farmers.
Friday’s verdict was issued in a 30-minute session, said Chen’s brother, Chen Guangfu, the only family member allowed to be present during the proceedings.
“I feel that this sentence is so unfair,” said Chen, whose mother and other brother were barred from the courtroom by court officials.
He said Chen Guangcheng stayed silent except to request an appeal after the judgment was read.
Chen was convicted in August of damaging property and “organizing a mob to disturb traffic” and sentenced to four years and three months in prison.
Last month, an intermediate court where Chen filed an appeal overturned the sentence, citing inadequate evidence, and sent it back to the lower court in Yinan County in Linyi city – a decision that was praised by family members and other activists.
At the 10-hour retrial on Monday, no witnesses or evidence were presented from the defense, Chen’s lawyer, Li Fangping said.
“One (witness) had been kidnapped and two were missing,” Li said without giving details. “It’s totally illegal.”
He said Chen would appeal Friday’s decision. “We were expecting a good result,” Li said. “But the outcome shows that they were just going through the motions.”
Chen’s supporters said officials fabricated the charges against him after he documented complaints that officials trying to enforce China’s birth-control regulations forced villagers to have late-term abortions and sterilizations.
While such practices are illegal, local officials often resort to drastic measures because they fear being punished for exceeding birth quotas.
Chen’s team of lawyers have said their efforts to represent their client and gather evidence have been stymied by local officials and unidentified men, who have fabricated theft charges against them and beaten them up.
Times researcher Zhao, 44, argued in his appeal that the prosecution’s evidence did not amount to a criminal charge and that a defense witness was not allowed to testify during the trial.
A high court judge reviewed the first trial on paper and no witnesses or evidence were allowed to be presented, Guan said.
“I’m very sorry about this outcome,” he said. “It’s unfair to Zhao Yan.”
On Aug. 25, the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court convicted Zhao of taking $2,500 from a man in 2001 on a false promise that he would use his official connections to have the man’s 18-month sentence in a labor camp rescinded, according to state media reports.
Zhao claims he never took the money and says he has a witness willing to testify on his behalf who was not allowed to appear in court.
The court concluded there was insufficient evidence to convict Zhao on the more serious charge of revealing state secrets. The government never released details of that charge, but the case is believed to stem from a 2004 Times report on then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s plans to relinquish his post as head of the military. The Communist Party treats such information as highly confidential.
Before joining the Times in 2004, Zhao was a hard-charging investigative reporter for Chinese publications. He wrote about complaints of official corruption and abuses in the countryside.