By Erica Kinetz
BEIJING (AP) — Closed-door court hearings of a prominent journalist and a noted minority scholar held on Friday were sharply criticized for violating due process and chilling freedom of expression as Chinese authorities tighten oversight of public speech.
Journalist Gao Yu, 70, denied that she had leaked state secrets on the first day of her trial, her lawyer said. Police and plainclothes agents blocked journalists from accessing the Beijing No. 3 People’s Intermediate Court. She faces a maximum penalty of death, lawyer Mo Shaoping said.
Across the country, in the tumultuous Xinjiang region, a sealed jailhouse court upheld the separatism conviction and life sentence for Ilham Tohti, a noted scholar from China’s Muslim Uighur minority who frequently criticized the government while advocating ethnic pride and greater economic opportunity.
Both proceedings highlight tensions between China’s vision of rule of law, a top priority of President Xi Jinping, and Western notions of judicial fairness.
“The Chinese judicial authority handed down the verdict in accordance with the facts and law. China’s judicial sovereignty must not be questioned,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at his daily news briefing in response to a question about Ilham Tohti’s appeal.
To human rights groups, the trials are part of the Communist Party’s redoubled efforts to consolidate control, cracking down on dissidents, corruption and free speech, as China embarks on a difficult path of economic transformation and confronts new challenges in governing an increasingly well-informed and sometimes restive population.
“These cases fly in the face of China’s written commitment to improve the rule of law in China,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “This is because there is a misunderstanding of what these reforms really entail. They were never intended to improve the rights of the defense in politically sensitive cases or cases in which there was overwhelming evidence of guilt. What the government wants is for the police not to torture innocent people. Torturing guilty people they have no problem with.”
Activists fear authorities are using state secrets charges to silence critics like Gao, who also is one of the best-known intellectuals to have been imprisoned for supporting the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests. She was detained in April on charges of illegally obtaining a Communist Party document and providing it to an overseas website for publication, according to previous official reports.
State media did not identify the document, but it appeared to refer to a strategy paper — known as Document No. 9 — that reportedly argued for aggressive curbs on the spread of Western democracy, universal values, civil society, freedom of the press and other ideological concepts the party believed threatened its legitimacy.
The life sentence against Ilham Tohti, delivered in September after a closed-door trial in the regional capital of Urumqi, was China’s most severe in a decade for illegal political speech. It drew condemnation from the U.S. and the European Union.
His lawyers said the Xinjiang High Court’s rejection of the scholar’s appeal was delivered at a hearing inside the Urumqi detention center, in violation of judicial procedure. The hearing was set at such short notice neither lawyer was able to attend.
Ilham Tohti’s supporters portray him as a moderate intent on mediating ethnic conflict. Tensions between Xinjiang’s roughly 10 million mostly Muslim Uighurs and China’s majority Han Chinese have left about 400 people dead in the past 20 months.
Beijing maintains the violence is fueled by terrorists and Islamist insurgents trained outside China. Human rights groups say it is a response to a lack of economic opportunity and harsh repression of Uighurs, including indiscriminate arrests, torture and suppression of ethnic and religious identity.
Ilham Tohti’s wife, Guzelnur Ali, was unaware of the verdict Friday until a reporter handed her his mobile phone with a message from the lawyers.
“The verdict is not fair,” she said, looking up. “All he wanted is to be a professor at a university. He never had any intention of splitting the country as they say he did.”
The government seized 850,000 yuan ($139,000) of the family’s savings, complicating Guzelnur Ali’s efforts to raise her two sons in the small, spotless apartment given to her husband by the university where he taught for 23 years. Losing her home is not something she wants to consider.
“This is China. I think there are laws,” she said, adding: “What would I do if they kick me out?”
Her boys, aged 4 and 8, wrestled each other in a heap of giggles on the floor. “The younger one doesn’t know exactly what happened, but the elder one does,” she said. “The younger doesn’t know where his father is, nor what the situation is.”
Do they ask you about it very often?
“Very often,” she said. “And every time they ask, I lie to them.” (end)
Associated Press reporter Aritz Parra contributed reporting.