Chinese court sentences rights lawyer in secret trial

China sentenced a prominent human rights lawyer to a three-year suspended sentence Friday following a secret trial, raising concerns the country is moving to further reduce transparency in high-profile, politically sensitive cases.  

AFP| Updated: Apr 28, 2017, 13:04 PM IST

Beijing: China sentenced a prominent human rights lawyer to a three-year suspended sentence Friday following a secret trial, raising concerns the country is moving to further reduce transparency in high-profile, politically sensitive cases.

Li Heping, best known for defending blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, was found guilty of "subverting state power," the Tianjin Second Intermediate Court said in a post on its verified microblog.

Li stood trial on Tuesday in the port city of Tianjin, close to the nation`s capital, where he said he would "obey the judgement and not appeal," the statement said.

"Because the case involved state secrets, our court had a trial not open to the public...the court fully protects the rights of litigation of Li Heping," it added.

The Beijing Global Law Firm partner was detained by police during the so-called "709 crackdown" in the summer of 2015, when authorities rounded up some 200 legal staff and activists. 

A suspended sentence means Li will be released from detention, but will continue to be closely monitored by police, likely at his home. 

Last August, Chinese courts tried six members of the "709" group in quick succession, finding them guilty of serious crimes including "subverting state power" and "endangering national security".
 
The courts gave prior notice of the hearings -- even if just a few hours in some cases.

According to Chinese law, in most cases a defendant`s family members or lawyers must be informed at least three days before a trial.

But the announcement of Li`s judgement, after almost two years with little information about his case, took supporters by surprise.

"The secret trial shows that allegations against Li Heping are groundless and weak," Amnesty International`s China researcher Patrick Poon told AFP.
"Otherwise, why didn`t the court inform his family properly before trial and only announce its verdict online?" 

Li has not had access to a lawyer of his own choosing since he was detained, according to his former attorneys. 

His wife could not be reached for comment. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping has overseen a tightening of controls on civil society since assuming power in 2012, closing avenues for legal activism that had opened up in recent years.

While the government initially targeted political activists and human rights campaigners, it has increasingly turned its attention to the legal professionals who represent them.

Last week, a Chinese court indefinitely postponed the trial of Xie Yang, another prominent lawyer arrested in the 2015 sweep. 

The status of a third remaining human rights lawyer awaiting trial, Wang Quanzhang, is also unknown. 

Amnesty`s Poon said that Li`s trial may bode ill for the other detained lawyers: "it could become a pattern where authorities are handling the cases in relation to the crackdown in a secretive manner."