China jails citizen journalist Zhang Zhan for four years over Wuhan coronavirus reports

Guo Rui
·4-min read

Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years in prison in Shanghai on Monday for her reporting on the coronavirus pandemic in central Chinese city of Wuhan early this year, one of her lawyers said.

Zhang, 37, was found guilty by Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Court on Monday morning of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a broadly defined offence which carries a maximum sentence of five years and is often used by police to stifle dissent.

“Zhang Zhan attended the trial in a wheelchair and was in poor health,” lawyer Zhang Keke said.

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“She did not immediately say if she would appeal [against the sentence].”

Zhang Zhan’s lawyer Zhang Keke (centre) is stopped by police while talking to media shortly before Zhang Zhan’s trial started on Monday. Photo: Handout
Zhang Zhan’s lawyer Zhang Keke (centre) is stopped by police while talking to media shortly before Zhang Zhan’s trial started on Monday. Photo: Handout

On social media after the trial, Zhang Keke said: “[During the trial] the prosecutor only read out the list of evidence, without showing most of it, including the core evidence. Zhang Zhan said citizens’ speech should not be censored. But apart from that, she basically did not speak.”

Zhang Zhan, who has been held in a detention centre in Pudong district in Shanghai since mid-May, has maintained her innocence and in June she started refusing to take food to protest against her arrest, legal sources said.

She was one of the few citizen journalists in China to report on the early experiences of people in Wuhan during the city’s lockdown. The others have either been detained or ordered to stop their online reporting.

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In front of the Pudong court, dozens of people who came from all over the country to support Zhang Zhan were driven away by police, according to witnesses.

Li Dawei, 58, a rights activist and former police officer from Gansu province, said he took the train to Shanghai to show support. He said he arrived at the court at around 9am and asked to enter the courtroom to observe the trial but was stopped by police.

He said he argued with police, asserting that the charge against Zhang was only “provoking trouble”, which did not involve state secrets or personal privacy, and questioned why, as a public trial, citizens could not walk in and listen.

Li said police told him he should have applied to the judge in advance, but Li said this violated the freedom of citizens to observe an open court case.

After an argument, Li was taken to the police station and was released at around 1pm, he said.

“I have not met Zhang Zhan, just chatted with her on social media, and after knowing that she went to Wuhan alone I was very worried,” Li said.

The police move to drive away journalists, citizens and rights activists who asked to enter the courtroom before the trial of citizen journalist Zhang Zhan. Photo: Handout
The police move to drive away journalists, citizens and rights activists who asked to enter the courtroom before the trial of citizen journalist Zhang Zhan. Photo: Handout

“We kept in touch until she was arrested. Knowing that she was on a hunger strike made me even more anxious. I have to support her. I was shocked by the sentence. She should be released right now and get treatment.”

A Wuhan resident who would only identify herself as “Xiaomu”, travelled from Wuhan to Shanghai on Sunday. She had met Zhang Zhan in the central Chinese city in April.

“We were full of fears about the virus and the future during the Wuhan lockdown, so we thanked Zhang Zhan for arriving in Wuhan. So brave. I heard that she bought a train ticket to Chongqing and got off in Wuhan alone,” she said.

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She said she also tried to enter the court to observe the trial and was refused by the police who told her she could not go in because of epidemic prevention and control measures in place.

“Zhang Zhan is the one paying the biggest price for Wuhan, a price of blood and tears, of health and life. Zhang Zhan is unbelievably determined for the truth and faith. As a Wuhan native, I must support her,” she said.

Wu Yangwei, a Guangzhou-based activist, was critical of the sentence.

“The four-year sentence is too heavy,” said Wu who uses the pseudonym Ye Du on social media. “But for anyone who understands this regime, this was within expectations.

“This regime stands on two pillars: lies and power. It covers up the truth about the pandemic with lies so it can carry on its rule … and uses power to intimidate and shut up the ordinary people, and heavy sentences [to punish] people who are not afraid of the intimidation.”

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