April 28, 2017
China convicts rights lawyer Li Heping of 'subversion of state power'
Li, once told that China considered him ‘more dangerous than Bin Laden’, sentenced in secret trial to three years in prison with a four-year reprieve
A respected Christian human rights lawyer has been convicted of “subversion of state power” at a secret trial in China, almost two years after he was first detained in a sweeping crackdown.
Li Heping was sentenced to three years in prison with a four-year reprieve, the court in the eastern city of Tianjin said on an official social media account, meaning he should be released but could be arrested and jailed at any point.
The trial was held behind closed doors on Tuesday because “the case involved state secrets”, the court said, but was only announced along with the verdict on Friday.
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Li was swept up in a nationwide crackdown on rights lawyers and activists in July 2015, where police detained or questioned about 250 people. Since assuming power, China’s president, Xi Jinping, has launched a new wave of attacks on activists and the lawyers who defend them.
Li’s case drew attention around the world, and EU officials, as well as the embassies of 11 countries, called for his claims of torture while in custody to be investigated. His wife has said authorities used electric shocks on him.
“A suspended sentence does not mean he’s free until we actually get to see him and he’s allowed to speak freely, and given what we’ve seen in the past that probably won’t happen,” said Eva Pils, a professor at King’s College London and longtime friend of Li.
“It was a secret trial so we don’t know what state he is in,” Pils added. “In addition to our usual concerns about torture and physical health, I’m worried that this entire process may have robbed him of his mental health, especially after what they’ve apparently done to his brother.”
Li’s younger brother, Li Chunfu, emerged from 500 days of secret detention in January and was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, according to his family.
Li became well known for defending the disenfranchised, including Christian house churches, victims of forced evictions and free speech advocates. He worked within the scope of China’s legal system, rather than taking to the streets in protest. One Chinese security agent reportedly once told Li that the state considered him “more dangerous than Bin Laden”.
Although Li is likely to be released in the coming weeks, he has already spent more than 20 months in detention. At least 11 activists who received suspended sentences disappeared shortly after they were released, with some forced to undergo months of political education classes before being placed under house arrest by local police, according to human rights groups.
The court’s verdict was seen as a warning to other activists, and included a catalogue of vague charges, without citing any specific examples of illegality.
“The court ruled that since 2008, the defendant Li Heping repeatedly used the internet and foreign media interviews to discredit and attack state power and the legal system,” the court said. The court also accused Li of accepting foreign funds and employing paid defendants.
A lawyer hired by Li’s family to defend him was rejected by authorities and he was ultimately given a government appointed lawyer, an increasing trend in political prosecutions.
The conviction came on the same day that another civil rights lawyer, Xie Yang, was set to go on trial, but it was later cancelled.