Chinese activists who posted censored Covid-19 articles face court

12-May-2021 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 5:02 AM Print This Post

Two Chinese activists swept up in a crackdown against reporting on the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic were tried in a Beijing court on Tuesday, after more than a year in detention.

Cai Wei and Chen Mei, who pleaded guilty, archived censored articles about Covid-19 and ran an online discussion forum before they were detained in April last year and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” a catch-all offence which has been used to punish a number of activists who contradicted the official narrative on the pandemic.

Chen Mei’s mother (left) and Cai Wei’s father with flowers given to them by the defendants’ supporters. Photo: AP

Chen Mei’s mother (left) and Cai Wei’s father with flowers given to them by the defendants’ supporters. Photo: AP

A verdict will be announced later, according to the pair’s families, but citizen journalist Zhang Zhan who reported her findings from on the ground in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the disease first emerged was jailed for four years in December last year for the same offence.

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Due to Covid-19 restrictions, only one member of each of the defendants’ families was allowed to attend the trial at Wenyuhe People’s Court, an old justice building in the city’s northeast. Chen’s mother, who asked to be identified only by her surname Wei, said it was the first time she had seen her son since he was detained.

Wei said Chen was wearing a protective suit, making it hard to see his expression, but his voice sounded like he had been crying and his tone was regretful.

“I don’t agree that he committed a crime, but his behaviour and thinking may have been slightly radical. I don’t think he intended to go against the Chinese Communist Party,” she said. “I’m worried for his future. I’m heartbroken to see him handcuffed and shackled. The trial was just a show.”

Outside the court, supporters of the two men presented flowers to Wei and Cai’s father, who was also present at the trial. Aoi, who works in the film industry, brought two bunches of camomile representing freedom and justice to give to Cai and Chen’s relatives. “[The case] reflects the problems of the whole system,” Aoi said.

Cai, 27, and Chen, 28, were friends who worked on a project called Terminus2049, which had been saving copies of censored news articles from China on GitHub, the world’s largest open-source code sharing platform, since 2018. Before they were detained, they had archived around 600 articles, of which 100 related to Covid-19. Some included criticism of the government’s early handling of the outbreak.

The trial, which lasted about an hour and a half, consisted mostly of the prosecution laying out the charges, with the judge and defence lawyers saying very little, according to Wei. The evidence related to the 2049BBS discussion forum that was part of the Terminus2049 project which had been built by Cai and managed by Chen.

Wei said she recalled the prosecution describing some of the comments posted to the forum as false and insulting to China’s leaders, which had a negative impact on the image of China and its leaders.

A sentence of one year and three months was recommended, and Wei said her son had told the family through his court-appointed lawyers that he would appeal if the verdict was significantly harsher than the recommendation.

According to Wei, Chen’s lawyers Nan Bo and Xing Qi did not make a vigorous defence during the trial, with Nan telling the court Chen had been influenced by Western culture, while Xing asked for leniency. Neither of the lawyers had responded to a request for comment by the time of publishing.

Chen Kun, Chen’s older brother, said the only people to have access to the defendants had been the court-appointed lawyers, even though their families had retained lawyers on their behalf. Chen Kun said the families had been consistently denied information about the case as the court-appointed lawyers had refused to share court documents with them.

“The prosecution and court-appointed lawyers were working with each other and completely hid the information for this case. We have not received any useful information. I’m very worried that they will face heavy sentencing,” Chen Kun said. He added that both defendants had signed affidavits last year in which they said they pleaded guilty to the charges and would accept their sentence.

The detention and prosecution of the two men has drawn criticism from organisations such as Human Rights Watch, which called for their immediate release, along with other citizen journalists and ordinary internet users who have faced harsh punishment for documenting the suffering and trauma experienced in the early days of the pandemic.

At least a dozen people are known to have been prosecuted, detained or fined for not following the official narrative on the outbreak. Among them were Chen Qiushi, Li Zehua and Fang Bin who were detained for months after reporting from Wuhan during the world’s first Covid-19 lockdown. Chen Qiushi and Li have since been released, but there has been no word on Fang since his disappearance in February last year.

Zhang Wenfang, a woman from the northern province of Hebei, was jailed for six months for “spreading rumours” by sharing a post on social media platform Weibo which documented more than 40 cases of personal suffering during the health crisis.

In June last year, China issued a white paper “Fighting Covid-19: China in Action” which gave a glowing account of the government’s actions against the virus and was seen as a response to domestic and overseas criticism of the initial handling of the outbreak.

At the time, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China had issued the white paper not to defend itself, but to keep a record of what had happened. “The history of the combat against the pandemic should not be tainted by lies and misleading information, It should be recorded with the correct collective memory of all mankind,” she said.



Category: China

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