Authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong have handed down a two-year jail term to a prominent anti-censorship campaigner after finding him guilty of subversion, a rights group said with the launch of its annual report detailing hundreds of prisoners of conscience held in the country.
Zhen Jianghua was initially detained at his home in Guangdong's Zhuhai city on the night of Sept. 1, 2017 on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power."
He was tried in secret in Guangdong's Zhuhai city on Aug. 10, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment after the court found him guilty of "incitement to subvert state power," his former defense attorney Ren Quanniu told RFA.
"Given the particular circumstances of the case, two years is quite a harsh sentence," Ren said. "They could have given him a suspended sentence for this, but this is probably because he refused to cooperate and plead guilty."
Zhen had registered a website overseas to elude ruling Chinese Communist Party censorship, and offered information about censorship, and circumvention tools for accessing the internet beyond the complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship that make up China's Great Firewall.
Ren, who was prevented from acting for Zhen by the authorities' refusal to allow him to meet with him and the secrecy around his trial, said he remains concerned about his former client.
"It has been more than a year since his initial detention, and we haven't had any news of him whatsoever," Ren said. "That is very worrying."
"This whole case has been conducted behind closed doors, with no transparency," he said.
Help from relatives blocked
Ren said police-run detention centers frequently prevent the relatives of political prisoners from sending them food and other necessities in detention.
"They won't let anyone deposit money for them," said Ren, who was denied permission to meet with Zhen on the grounds that the case touched on matters of "national security."
Zhen, 34, once known by his online name GuestsZhen, was detained when he went to bring money to detained activists after taking part in a memorial event marking the death of late Nobel peace laureate and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo last July.
According to the overseas rights group, Frontline Defenders, Zhen had also worked as a technical consultant with Human Rights Campaign in China, as an advising expert with Chinese Wikipedia, and as a project officer of a HIV/AIDS prevention education project in Zhuhai, run by the Hong Kong AIDS Foundation.
He had previously been detained by state security police for traveling to Guangdong's rebel village of Wukan following a crackdown by armed police in September 2016, on suspicion of inciting protests there, the group said.
The news of Zhen's sentencing came as the Weiquanwang rights website published its annual reporting detailing more than 800 political prisoners—including dissidents, rights activists, lawyers, and those who complain about the ruling Chinese Communist Party—behind bars in 2018.
This year's tally of 879 prisoners of conscience also included Deng Yaoqiong, a woman incarcerated in a psychiatric facility in the central province of Hunan after she live-streamed video of herself splashing ink on a poster of President Xi Jinping.
Dong Yaoqiong was sent for "compulsory treatment" after she streamed live video of herself splashing ink on a poster of President Xi in Shanghai, in protest at "authoritarian tyranny" on July 4.
She is being held as a psychiatric patient in a women's ward in Hunan's Zhuzhou No. 3 Hospital. Her father Dong Jianbiao and Beijing artist-activist Hua Yong were also detained when they spoke out about her detention.
Beijing artist Guo Zi said Hua Yong is now in contact with the outside world after his detention, but that nothing has been heard from Dong Yaoqiong or her father.
"It was a kind of solidarity with a fellow artist; he was exercising his freedom of speech in a normal manner," Guo said. "All he did was express his opinion to the media, and he was detained."
"It's nearly 2019 now, and it's a great tragedy that there is still no legal framework being implemented for the freedom of speech ... nearly 20 years into the 21st century," he said.
Life in danger
Another political prisoner, veteran democracy activist Wang Bingzhang, has warned that his life is in danger in prison, where he is serving a life sentence for "espionage" in the southern province of Guangdong.
Wang made the comments to his daughter, who visited him on Christmas Day.
"Wang Bingzhang personally told his daughter that he had a hunch that his life was in danger," Wang's brother Wang Bingwu told RFA on Monday.
"In particular, he said that if he met with an unfortunate end, it wouldn't be from health or physical problems, because his health was OK."
"He also said it wouldn't be from the prison staff, but we don't know much about what my brother meant by this," he said.
Mass incarceration of Muslims
Patrick Poon, China researcher for the London-based rights group Amnesty International, said the mass incarceration of Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in the northwestern region of Xinjiang has been a major concern during 2018.
The authorities have also stepped up a nationwide crackdown on religious believers, shutting down churches and mosques and detaining anyone who resists.
"Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Hui Muslims, and other Muslim minorities have been persecuted to a high degree, and we have heard reports of torture and inhumane treatment," Poon said.
Meanwhile, a crackdown on human rights lawyers and associated activists begun in July 2015 continues to widen, while political prisoners are denied a fair trial in Chinese courts.
"The Chinese government should stop all of this persecution, and respond to concern from the international community by releasing all political prisoners," Poon said.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Liu Fei for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.