This post was written by Alinda Vermeer of the Media Legal Defence Initiative.
Prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was arrested on 4 May 2014, has now spent ten months in detention without a trial. He is facing charges that include inciting ethnic hatred, inciting the splitting of the country and creating a public disturbance; the latter an increasingly popular means of silencing dissent often described as a “pocket crime”, as anything can be stuffed into it. If found guilty on all charges, Pu could face 20 years in prison.
Pu was arrested shortly after attending a small private gathering in Beijing commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, but the factual basis for his detention has long been unclear. After an eight months of what looked more like a fishing expedition than a criminal investigation, the Chinese authorities announced that the charges stemmed from a selection of 28 posts on Sina Weibo and investigations Pu conducted on behalf of some of China’s most respected media outlets.
A student leader in the 1989 Tiananmen protests, Pu was committed to free speech and often represented high profile activists or political dissidents. His clientele ranged from artist Ai Weiwei to communist Party officials demanding redress for torture they suffered during investigations on corruption charges. He also represented Tang Hui, the mother who was sent to a labour camp for peacefully petitioning against the lenient sentences given to the men who raped and prostituted her 11-year old daughter.
Pu’s witty, scathing Weibo posts chronicled many of the public details of his cases and attracted tens of thousands of followers. Each time his following reached a certain level, Chinese authorities would close his account, after which Pu would open a new one. Looking more closely at the posts that landed Pu in jail, and which according to one of Pu’s lawyers are the prosecutors’ sole evidence on the three speech-related crimes he is accused of, it is clear that his comments on public figures and incidents may have been crude or harsh, but do not warrant criminal prosecution.
In post No. 6 for instance, days after devastating floods in Beijing in 2012, Pu responded to allegations that Beijing authorities were downplaying the death toll:
[f]rom top to bottom, this party can’t live a day without lying
In post No. 25, Pu responds to critics calling him a traitor:
I’m not the one who chose the Communists to rule the country and they never asked my views on the matter. Where does their demand for my unconditional support come from? If being a traitor could mean releasing our citizens from their torment by handing over a dozen or so provinces and three or five hundred million people to democratic countries, then my deepest regret would be only that I have failed as a traitor.
Other posts comment on terrorist attacks, ethnic tensions in Xinjiang and Tibet, and “separatism” in or around Taiwan. The selection is random and not representative of Pu’s writing in general. In some cases, the context of the post is completely unclear.
Pu’s arrest is of what human rights experts says is the worst crackdown on activists and lawyers China has seen in a decade. China has consistently been among the lowest ranking countries in the press freedom ratings, but since Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2012, the crackdown on dissent has further intensified. At least 500 human rights activists and dissidents have been arrested and sent to prison. China’s legal system is highly politicised and as a result the case against Pu is rife with irregularities. Human rights organisations are concerned that, with Pu’s potential conviction, self-censorship will become even more pervasive.
To raise awareness about Pu’s case, the Media Legal Defence Initiative petitioned the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in December 2014, urging the UN Working Group to call upon the Chinese government to immediately release Pu and withdraw all charges against him. Read the petition here.