China uses Xmas as crackdown cover
China is stepping up prosecutions of rights activists during Christmas and New Year, apparently hoping the West will pay less attention to its crackdown on dissent.
Prosecutors and courts in various Chinese localities over the last few days have moved to indict or prepare to put on trial several dissidents and activists in the coming weeks, according to rights lawyers.
Some of the cases, pending for months, have suddenly picked up speed in the past several days, they said, perhaps in the hope of moving them to court while Western diplomats, rights groups, and China-based foreign reporters might be off-duty for the holidays.
"Most of the defence lawyers handling these cases feel that the momentum has increased," said one, Zhang Xuezhong. He said courts have been contacting lawyers and urging them to quickly process the necessary paperwork for their cases.
"I think they hope to hold the trial around Christmas and convict them before the Chinese New Year," he said. The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as it is also known, starts on January 31.
This week Chinese prosecutors in a southern city indicted activist Liu Yuandong for leading free-speech demonstrations outside a newspaper office in January that were sparked by a censorship dispute. Meanwhile, veteran dissident Zhang Lin stood trial for April demonstrations at which dozens of people flocked to an eastern city to protest at an elementary school for preventing his 10-year-old daughter from attending class.
In Beijing, a lawyer representing Xu Zhiyong, a prominent legal activist who founded the New Citizens Movement, a loose network of campaigners against corruption and for equal access to education, said he was told that Mr Xu would be put on trial in late December. At least a half-dozen other activists associated with the group were charged last week and were also expected to be tried this month.
The timing could be a coincidence, but rights lawyers and activists point to a precedent set by Chinese authorities in recent years of choosing the Christmas period to impose heavy prison sentences on well-known activists and dissidents. Among the most famous is now-Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, whose 11-year sentence for subversion was handed down on Christmas Day in 2009. Two activists in 2011 separately received nine and 10-year sentences around Christmas.
"The fact that Xu Zhiyong and others detained have been indicted recently suggests the same (harsh sentencing) might happen this year," said Maya Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. "But however hard China tries, it can't hide the ugly fact that it is punishing individuals simply for exercising basic human rights and for calling an end to corruption."