A prominent Chinese lawyer who had taken on sensitive, high-profile cases involving activists and victims of a tainted infant formula scandal was sentenced Thursday to seven years in prison on charges of subversion.
Zhou Shifeng, a human-rights lawyer and director of the Beijing Fengrui Law firm, was arrested in July 2015 in a wide-reaching crackdown that saw hundreds of people detained.
State-run media accused him of operating a “criminal syndicate” that masterminded serious illegal activities to incite “social disorder” all in the name of making money.
Authorities accused Zhou of drawing unwarranted amounts of public attention to “sensitive cases” by publishing information about them online and encouraging people to appear outside courthouses where trials of such cases were being held.
Fengrui gained a reputation as a firm that would take on the most difficult, and from the government’s perspective, nettlesome cases. Outspoken artist Ai Weiwei turned to the firm when he was slapped with a tax evasion case; the firm also represented Ilham Tohti, a scholar from the Uighur ethnic minority who was accused of separatism and sentenced to life in prison in 2014. And when contaminated baby formula sickened thousands and led to multiple deaths in 2008, Fengrui represented families seeking redress.
Zhou’s trial was held Thursday morning at the No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court in Tianjin, a city southeast of Beijing. On Tuesday and Wednesday, two associates of Zhou’s – activists Hu Shigen and Zhai Yanmin – were also convicted of subversion charges. Hu received a 7½ year sentence and Zhai a suspended three-year sentence.
“This wave of trials against lawyers and activists are a political charade. Their fate was sealed before they stepped into the courtroom and there was no chance that they would ever receive a fair trial,” said Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International.
“The Chinese authorities appear intent on silencing anyone who raises legitimate questions about human rights and uses the legal system to seek redress.”
In addition to Zhou’s seven-year term, the court said he would be stripped of his political rights for five years after his release.
Prosecutors made an issue of Zhou’s contact with foreigners, particularly foreign media. Zhou, the court said, was guilty of “colluding with others to plan the strategy, methods and procedures to subvert the state power; accepting foreign media’s interview to attack socialism system. His behavior hampered state safety and stability.”
A week after Zhou’s arrest, he appeared in a video aired on state-run TV admitting that his firm had been involved in “serious” illegal activities and asking authorities to give him a chance and show leniency.
Zhou’s friends and associates say they have been unable to contact him during his year-plus detention and say the video was likely made under duress. Zhou was apparently not allowed to select his own defense attorney; his lawyer, Yang Jinzhu, has said that when he tried to visit Zhou, court authorities refused his request and claimed that Zhou had engaged another attorney.
China Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group, said the trial “makes a mockery of justice.” The group said that Zhou’s family was under house arrest.
1:20 a.m.: Updated with a quote from Rife.
This article was first posted at 12 a.m.