A court in China's southern Hunan province has sentenced prominent rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong to two years in prison on the charge of inciting state subversion.
Jiang is the twelfth lawyer to be sentenced since China began a sweeping crackdown more than two years ago that has seen more than 300 lawyers targeted. Two of those lawyers have filed an appeal.
Kill chicken, frighten monkey
Jiang's wife and rights activists denounced the sentence, calling it "unlawful." They said Chinese authorities are trying to use the ruling to send a warning to rights defenders and portray western democratic values as subversive.
“As the Chinese saying goes, kill the chicken to frighten the monkey. [Authorities] are using Jiang’s case to tell other rights lawyers to behave themselves, or face the same consequences Jiang is facing. I think it sends a warning,” said Jiang’s wife Jin Bianling, who has lived in the United States with her daughter since 2013 to avoid Chinese government harassment.
Jin insists her husband is innocent, arguing he has done nothing but his job, practicing law and defending the socially-disadvantaged.
Prior to his arrest in November last year, 46-year-old Jiang had taken on numerous high-profile cases, including those of Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan protesters and victims of the 2008 contaminated milk power scandal before being disbarred for his activism in 2009.
Jiang was critical of Chinese authorities' crackdown on dissent, which began in July of 2015 — a crackdown that critics argue has made a mockery of China's pledges to improve rule of law.
Since his arrest, Jiang has been unlawfully deprived of legal representation, Jin said, as the lawyers hired by her to defend Jiang were denied access to their client. Two court-appointed lawyers have refused to talk to her since authorities held a so-called “open” trial for Jiang in August — publishing details on social media.
She further speculated that Jiang was either tortured or under pressure to have pleaded guilty three months ago.
A 14-minute video clip of what the court called another “open” hearing to announce Jiang’s verdict was posted on its official Weibo account on Tuesday for public viewing.
According to the presiding judge, Liu Zheng, the court has concluded that Jiang is guilty of state subversion, but awarded a lenient jail term of two years after having taken into consideration his earlier public confession to his alleged crimes.
Jiang would also be deprived of political rights for three years, Liu said.
“With an aim to subvert state power and topple the socialist regime, Jiang, the accused has posted articles on the Internet, accepted interviews by foreign media and hyped up sensitive issues to smear the government, attack the [political] system enshrined in the Constitution, incite subversion of state power and [attempt to] topple the socialist regime,” the judge said.
“His behavior has constituted subversion of state power,” he concluded.
In response, Jiang told the court that he will not file an appeal.
Infiltration of foreign forces?
During his trial, Jiang and his court-appointed lawyers raised no objection to all of the accusations that were leveled against him, including one in which he allegedly instigated the wife of another rights lawyer, Xie Yang, to falsify Xie’s torture allegations while in police custody.
Tuesday’s court hearing also asserted that Jiang was under the long-term influence of the infiltration of anti-China forces because he had participated in overseas training and sought financial support from foreign backers to attempt to overthrow the incumbent regime.
The point was highlighted heavily in a report on the trial by the state run Global Times.
The focus on anti-China forces and overseas funding is not a good sign, said Kit Chan, who is with the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.
“That would be kind of an intimidation and warning to the other lawyers or civil society activists of participating any more in exchanging with any external partners, etc…,” Chan said. “It’s a sign of China trying to close itself in again.”
Chan agreed that Jiang was given a lighter-than-expected sentence, compared to other rights lawyers. But a two-year jail term is still too much for anyone who is as innocent as Jiang, she added.
She also accused Chinese authorities of using Jiang as a scapegoat to distort Xie’s alleged torture, which she urged the United Nations to launch an investigation and hold the perpetrators accountable.
While the court declared Tuesday’s session to be an open hearing, Jiang’s supporters were prevented from gathering near the court and attending the trial.
“I made it to Changsha, but was taken back by the police. I’m now back in Zhuzhou and under the watch of state police,” Ou Biaofeng, a rights activist from Hunan province, told VOA.
“I hope that Jiang, his peer rights lawyers, arrested during the  July 9 crackdown, and other rights activists can be set free soon,” he added.
Wang Qiaoling, wife of rights lawyer Li Heping, and Li Wenzu, wife of imprisoned lawyer Wang Quanzhang, also tweeted that they were first kept out of the court’s vicinity and later taken away by the police to a nearby government building, a training center for civil servants.