On 28 January 2019, Wang Quanzhang, a leading Chinese human rights lawyer, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for defending cases that were seen as sensitive by the Chinese government. He was tried in a closed hearing on 26 December 2018 that lasted just one day. By the time of his sentencing, Wang had already been held by Chinese authorities for more than three years without trial.
The court in the north-eastern city of Tianjin announced the sentencing on 28 January in a brief statement online. Wang was “found guilty of subverting state power, sentenced to four years and six months in prison, and deprived of political rights for five years”, the statement read. The charge of subversion is loosely defined in Chinese law and it is not clear what specific illegal acts Wang was accused of committing.
In a press release, Doriane Lau, China researcher at Amnesty International, said that “Today’s verdict is a gross injustice. It’s outrageous that Wang Quanzhang is being punished for peacefully standing up for human rights in China. He must be immediately and unconditionally released.”
As a lawyer, Wang had been defending citizens against the state – pursuing land rights cases on behalf of poor villagers, accusations of police torture or defending members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. Prior to his detention Wang had faced frequent intimidation due to his role in representing such cases.
He was arrested in 2015 as part of what is now known as the “709 crackdown” in reference to July 9, the date on which it began. The Chinese authorities detained more than 250 activists and rights workers giving many jail terms, suspended sentences or house arrest. The crackdown was seen as a major turning point in President Xi’s rule, showing a ruthless streak as he crushed any potential challenge to his authority. Wang was the last of the “709 crackdown” group still awaiting trial.
Michael Caster, researcher and author of The People’s Republic of the Disappeared, told the BBC that Wang’s case was “emblematic of Xi Jinping’s assault on the human rights and legal community”.
Wang’s case is notable for the length of time he has been kept incommunicado, prompting a UN rights group on arbitrary detentions in August 2018 to call on Beijing to release Wang. After disappearing in August of 2015, Wang’s family was not sure he was alive until July 2018 when a lawyer and friend of the family was able to see him.
“In the three years leading up to his sham of a trial, the authorities disappeared Wang Quanzhang into a black hole, where he was likely tortured. Wang’s family, who continue to be harassed by the authorities, didn’t even know if he was alive until recently,” said Doriane Lau. “His continued imprisonment only prolongs their suffering.”
Wang’s wife, Li Wenzu, was barred from attending the December hearing by security forces, but has been championing her husband’s case, including staging a 100 km (62 miles) march from Beijing to Tianjin, shaving her head to protest his treatment and filing almost weekly petitions to the Supreme People’s Court.
She wrote in a statement on Twitter that her husband was innocent and the “inhuman” behaviour of law enforcement officials toward Wang was a violation of Chinese law.
“I respect and support every choice that Wang Quanzhang has made. I will continue to defend Wang Quanzhang’s rights,” she said.