First China lawyer crackdown trial sees activist convicted

The human rights activist who formerly worked at a Beijing law firm was given a suspended three-year sentence.

In the first completed trial of the infamous lawyer crackdown in China, a human rights activist who used to work at a Beijing law firm has been given a suspended three-year prison term.

The sentence was handed down to Zhai Yanmin on Tuesday who pled guilty to subverting state power, organising protests and overstating complaints to destabilize the government.

Zhai was arrested last year in the “709 Crackdown” which is seen by observers as the Communist Party doubling down on dissent and activism, especially in the legal field.

Popularly named after the month and day in 2015 when it began, the crackdown has seen about 250 people ensnared, a report from The New York Times said.

Other organisations, like the BBC and the Law Council of Australia, estimate that more than 300 activists and lawyers and their associates and family members have been targeted. Around 20 people are still detained, their status unknown.

Zhai’s trial lasted only a day in Tianjin, about 80 miles from Beijing where his former law firm Fengrui used to be based.

Fengrui, which state-run outlets have tagged as a “criminal organisation” according to a report from The Telegraph, specialised in rights cases.

Lawyers Zhou Shifeng, Hu Shigen and Li Heping who are also from the same law firm are expected to also be sentenced this week. Zhou was the director of the law firm.

According to the BBC, China insists that the trial was “open” and that journalists were
“invited to cover it”. The UK broadcaster said that their invitation “must have got lost somewhere.”

The New York Times said that Zhai’s wife, Liu Ermin, was not allowed to attend the proceedings and that only pre-approved news outlets were permitted to observe the three-hour trial.

During his confession, Zhai urged his fellow Chinese to “wipe their eyes and clearly see the ugly faces of hostile forces overseas,” state news outlet Xinhua reported.

“Never be fooled by their ideas of ‘democracy,’ ‘human rights’ and ‘benefiting the public,’” Zhai reportedly added.

However, Liu said her husband would not have said such a thing.

“It’s not what he believes in his heart, because as his wife I know him best. He can’t deny all the things he has achieved over so many years,” she said.

The three-year sentence was the minimum allowed for subversion convictions. Zhai, 55, could have been imprisoned for life but is not expected to serve any jail time.

However, he will have to not violate the law for four years, the Times noted. He will also have his political rights suspended for that time as well as face strict surveillance.

A well-known human rights lawyer, Wang Yu, was also set free this month after the release of a video confession in which she apologised, disowned her work, attacked her colleagues and said she received training including in the UK to “hype up” cases to attack the Chinese government.

Observers, including the BBC and The New York Times, note that confessions have become par for the course in China and that are increasingly distrusted, even by Chinese citizens.

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