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Chinese Human Rights Lawyer Convicted; Receives Suspended Sentence


In China, a court has handed one of the country's top human rights lawyers a suspended three-year jail term based on the contents of seven tweet-like messages that he posted online. The sentence caps a year that saw most of the country's small community of human rights lawyers detained or questioned. Let's talk about this with NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who joins us from Beijing. Anthony, good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey there, David.

GREENE: So tell me about this lawyer and exactly what he was sentenced for here.

KUHN: The man's name is Pu Zhiqiang, and he's the kind of guy who really stands out in a courtroom. He's physically imposing at about 6-foot-1-inch. He's a burly guy with a buzz cut, and he's known as someone who takes on not just cases but causes, whether it's free speech or the rights of ethnic minorities or the abolition of China's labor camp system, which actually happened last year. And he was charged with inciting ethnic hatred and also another vague charge of picking quarrels and provoking troubles. The remarks that got him into trouble were postings he made on China's equivalent of Twitter. He asked why couldn't China function without the Communist Party? He made fun of a female lawmaker who was proud of the fact that she had never cast a no vote, and he criticized the government for treating the far-western region of Xinjiang essentially like a colony. And Pu Zhiqiang's lawyer said he did apologize for being a bit rude, but he doesn't think he broke any law.

GREENE: OK, so he's seen as taking on causes. He makes statements like this. So was this an especially severe sentence if we compare it to others?

KUHN: Not really. I mean, it's lenient in the sense that he's released. And if he doesn't get into any more trouble during the three years of his sentence, then he won't go to jail. The problem is that he's already been locked up for 19 months since he was arrested. And even worse, his conviction disqualifies him from practicing the law anymore. Now, because this was a free-speech case, it was considered highly political. He defended dissidents. He criticized the government. But like a lot of other recent political cases, the government has really played down these cases and tried to make them look not political by charging them with crimes other than subversion or national security-related crimes. It's also been difficult for the government because Pu Zhiqiang was very - you know, he enjoyed a lot of support both at home and abroad. And it's also worth noting that he was one of several major political cases this year, including a female journalist named Gao Yu. And in each of these cases this year, none of them have had to do any jail time.

GREENE: Even if very little jail time, I mean, why at the moment does the Chinese government seem to be cracking down on human rights lawyers specifically?

KUHN: Well, they've been prosecuting them and arresting them for years. But since July, some 300 human rights lawyers have been rounded up, detained, questioned or even just disappeared. And many of them have not had their licenses to practice law renewed, which means they've essentially been disbarred. And in some cases, the government has used extralegal measures, including detaining family members to put pressure on them. And to see what's behind it, it's interesting to note that the government has also warned them and cajoled them, saying do not take on politically sensitive cases. Do not defend any more dissidents. Remember that this is all under the administration of a president, Xi Jinping, who claims to be advancing the rule of law in China and ending miscarriages of justice.

GREENE: All right, that's NPR's Anthony Kuhn, speaking to us from Beijing about the Chinese government targeting human rights lawyers. Anthony, thanks very much.

KUHN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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