Hong Kong Law & Crime Politics & Protest

Xinjiang court upholds ‘extraordinarily harsh’ 19-year sentence for outspoken writer Zhang Haitao

A Xinjiang court struck down an appeal on Monday over the 19-year sentence of writer and activist Zhang Haitao.

Zhang was sentenced in January to 15 years for “inciting subversion of state power” and a shorter sentence for “providing intelligence to those outside borders.” He filed an appeal in February, which was delayed multiple times.

His sentence was “extraordinarily harsh,” Frances Eve, a researcher at China Human Rights Defenders, told HKFP previously, noting that cases involving Uyghurs or ethnic minority issues in the Xinjiang tend to result in tougher sentences.

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Zhang Haitao. Photo: CPPC.

Originally from Henan, Zhang is Han Chinese but lives in an area of Xinjiang which is home to the predominantly Muslim Uighur people, who face repression and restrictions on their religious practices. Chinese authorities are concerned about violent unrest in the region and has launched a crackdown on separatist “terrorists” it says are behind the violence.

Zhang’s lawyers received a notice earlier in November from the appeals court in Urumqi, saying that the appeal will be conducted only in writing.

Eve told HKFP that appeals in politically-sensitive cases like Zhang’s are often dismissed as a kind of box-ticking exercise by the authorities. A recent report from the NGO found that the appeals courts almost always uphold the original judgement in these cases.

‘Collusion with overseas hostile organisations’

The verdict for Zhang issued in January cited as evidence comments he made on Twitter and WeChat, his work for overseas website Boxun, and interviews he gave to US-backed news outlets Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.

Based on this evidence, the court found that “defendant Zhang Haitao colluded with overseas hostile organisations, gave interviews to overseas media and pitched articles to overseas websites and media, actively cooperated with overseas hostile organisations’ anti-China, anti-Communist needs.”

“This court finds that defendant Zhang Haitao, with the goal of inciting subversion of state power and overthrow of the socialist system, intentionally distorted facts and concocted rumors; used the Internet to disseminate a large quantity of articles and images that defamed and slandered party and state policies and the socialist system to an indeterminate online audience; and colluded with overseas hostile organisations to publish and pitch pieces and give interviews that attacked party and state policies in an attempt to subvert state political power and the socialist system.”

His lawyer argued that although his client’s remarks insulted the ruling party, he was opposed to the use of violence, did not have any intent to subvert state power, and did not act to do so. He also argued that the information that Zhang provided to overseas entities was already either already public or else information that the government either had a duty to disclose or should have disclosed. According to the verdict, Zhang admitted to posting the statements, but denied that he intended to overthrow the the party.

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Li Aijie with her child. Photo: RFA.

“If the appeal ruling maintains the original ruling, I think that’s very unfair,” Zhang’s wife Li Aijie told HKFP before the appeal ruling was issued. “The country has freedom of speech according to the constitution, so if that’s the ruling, I believe my husband is innocent.”

Zhang’s comments on Twitter listed in the verdict included statements criticising the government’s actions in Xinjiang, such as: “An atheistic regime doesn’t recognise how important religion is to a people of believers. Banning religious belief can only push these people towards a dead end. They’ll fight back to the very end, with no fear of death. Xinjiang is a snapshot of China’s future. The revolution in China has already begun.”

Zhang argued in his appeal that he should have the right to consider viewpoints that differ from that of the Communist Party, and that opposition should not be equated with subversion.

He ended it with a bold statement: “You’re a disgrace to the nation, and you’re fighting against the current of history. [China’s] path to North Korea is forged with the silence of the citizenry. I use my keyboard and computer mouse to express my own voice, and I have no qualms about having lived up to what the times require of us. The pursuit of liberty has setbacks, but never does it fail.”

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Xinjiang court upholds 'extraordinarily harsh' 19-year sentence for outspoken writer Zhang Haitao