A Beijing court yesterday convicted one of China’s most prominent rights lawyers of “inciting ethnic hatred” with posts criticizing the Chinese government, handing down a suspended sentence that means he avoids prison, but will not practice law again.
Activists said the three-year suspended sentence for Pu Zhiqiang (浦志強) would serve as a strong reminder to other rights lawyers that the Chinese Communist Party — currently engaged in a severe clampdown on dissent — would brook no challenge to its rule.
The Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court said Pu was being punished over charges of inciting ethnic hatred and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” state television CCTV said on its microblog.
The charges were based on seven microblog posts that he had published, criticizing China’s ethnic policy in the troubled western region of Xinjiang and several officials, his lawyers said.
Pu, 50, was sentenced to three years in prison, but given a three-year reprieve, lawyer Shang Baojun (尚寶軍) said.
The suspended sentence means Pu does not have to serve prison time as long as he stays under formal probation during that period, legal experts said.
Pu was released into “residential surveillance” — a form of detention in China that is used to keep dissidents in sites away from the public eye — where he is to remain for 10 days before being allowed to go back to his home in Beijing, said Mo Shaoping (莫少平), a second lawyer for Pu.
Mo said Pu was allowed to be with his wife, but declined to disclose Pu’s exact location.
Pu has represented many well-known dissidents, including artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) and activists of the New Citizens’ Movement, a group that has called on Chinese leaders to make their wealth public. He was the most prominent activist swept up in what rights groups say is the most severe clampdown on dissents in two decades in China.
“Pu is not guilty,” Ai said by telephone. “He should receive an apology ... and compensation.”
Pu had spent nearly 19 months in detention before his trial last week, which lasted about three hours.
His lawyers said he could have faced eight years in prison.
Shang said Pu was relieved and would not appeal.
“He said he thanks everyone and he wants to rest,” Shang said, recounting a private conversation Pu had with his lawyers after the verdict. “He also said if there is an opportunity, history will deliver a true judgement.”
State news agency Xinhua said the court decided “to impose a lenient punishment [due to] the fact that the defendant, Pu Zhiqiang, truthfully confessed to the facts of the crime and positively pleaded guilty.”
Shang said Pu had not pleaded guilty.
The US said it was concerned about the suspended sentence.
“We urge the Chinese authorities to restore all of Mr Pu’s rights and permit him to resume his work as one of China’s pre-eminent lawyers,” said Benjamin Weber, spokesman for the US embassy in Beijing.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) rebuffed the concern, saying foreign governments had to respect China’s judicial sovereignty and not interfere.
Police officers and plainclothes security officers prevented foreign reporters, Pu’s supporters and diplomats from the US, the EU and Switzerland from approaching the court.
It was unclear the extent of the restrictions that would be placed on Pu, though it is likely that he is to be placed under police surveillance and prevented from speaking to reporters.
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