Two leading human rights lawyers have been jailed for more than a decade by a Chinese court on subversion charges.
The heavy sentencing drew strong condemnation and threw light on the high price paid by government critics perceived by the Chinese authorities for challenging its rule.
Earlier this week, a court in Shandong province sentenced Xu Zhiyong to 14 years in prison and Ding Jiaxi to 12 years. Both were convicted of the crime of “subversion of state power,” according to Ding’s wife, Sophie Luo Shengchun, and Human Rights Watch.
Xu, 50, a former law lecturer at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, was a co-founder of the now-banned legal aid center Open Constitution Initiative and the New Citizens’ Movement.
They advocated civil rights, government transparency, and education equality.
Ding, a former commercial lawyer, was involved in those initiatives. Both had previously been jailed for their criticisms of the Communist Party of China.
Ding was imprisoned from 2013 to 2016 for urging officials to declare their assets. Xu spent four years in prison, from 2014 to 2018, also for campaigning for official transparency over private assets and for equal rights for migrant children.
There was no immediate comment from Beijing on the matter. But the Communist Party-controlled judiciary often hands down heavy sentences to political dissidents, particularly those who refused to stop their activities after they had been released from prison.
“Now I only have one goal – eliminate totalitarianism and autocracy. Just wait and see!” Luo said in a Twitter post.
She fled to the United States and was informed about the sentences by their lawyers. But the authorities barred them from releasing their verdicts to their families.
Luo told Voice of America that the heavy prison sentences given to her husband and Xu were “ridiculous and absurd.”
“What Ding and Xu have long been advocating was for citizens to exercise the rights that have been granted by law and the constitution. Their jailing shows the authorities’ disregard for their own laws, which are just lies to deceive the people and the international community,” she said.
Additionally, Luo wrote that Xu was also given four years of “deprivation of political rights” and Ding was given three years. That means they would be barred from taking public positions, speaking publicly, and publishing when they are released.
Last week, she posted statements on Twitter from both men, which were dictated to their lawyers earlier in their detention. Xu said he dreamed of a China where everyday people could elect public officials and freely express themselves.
Ding called for democratic reforms and an end to autocratic rule.
Their trials were conducted behind closed doors and riddled with procedural problems and allegations of mistreatment, Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
“The cruelly farcical convictions and sentences meted out to Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi show President Xi Jinping’s unstinting hostility towards peaceful activism,” Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.
“Bejing’s treatment of the country’s best-known human rights defenders should be a reality check for foreign leaders rushing to return to business as usual with Beijing,” she added.
Veteran dissident journalist Gao Yu, who has been jailed several times, said their heavy sentences – longer than Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo’s 11-year jail term – “proved” their “contribution towards China’s democracy and freedom.”
“You are the rivals of dictatorial regimes … you can see the dawn every day even behind bars,” she wrote on Twitter.
The authorities detained Ding, 55, in December 2019, after he and Xu and 20 human rights lawyers and activists attended a secret gathering in the southeastern province of Fujian to discuss China’s political future.
After the event, Xu went into hiding and in February 2020, he was arrested in the southern city of Guangzhou.
Earlier that month, Xu published an essay that criticized Xi for his lack of ability to govern China, citing the coronavirus crisis and the mishandling of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.
“Whenever you face a looming crisis, you’re clueless … Mr Xi Jinping, please step down,” he wrote.
Xu, who has a Ph.D. in law from the prestigious Peking University, has been a champion for social equality and the rule of law for 20 years.
He began as an activist in 2003 when he and fellow doctoral graduates, Teng Biao, and another friend successfully campaigned for the national legislature to scrap rules on detaining and repatriating migrants.
Teng, now a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, said:
The Chinese Communist Party decided to do everything to wipe out the human rights movement and dissidents. The brutal sentence of two leading lawyers shows Xi’s exaggerated sense of insecurity.
In 2012, Xu said in an interview that he would bravely face jail as “it’s glorious to sacrifice for the sake of social progress and fighting injustice.”
Li Qiaochu, Xu’s girlfriend and a women’s rights and labor activist, has been detained since February 2021 on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” and is awaiting trial.
Xu was a 2020 recipient of PEN America’s PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. In 2023, the US Department of State awarded Ding the Global Human Rights Defender Award.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.