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Observers: Tianjin Trials of Activists Reminiscent of Soviet Purges

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Joyce Huang  |  Voice of America

Chinese lawyer Zhou Shifeng sentenced to 7 years in prison (China Change)
Chinese lawyer Zhou Shifeng sentenced to 7 years in prison (China Change)

China put four human rights defenders on trial last week, each of whom received a prison sentence of three to seven and a half years for state subversion.  

But human rights groups and observers say the latest wave of what they call “sham trials” against legal advocates, arrested amid an orchestrated crackdown last July, is mostly a political charade, and to some extent, bears a resemblance to the notorious Moscow Purge trials in the late 1930’s. 

More importantly, some added, the trials show that the civil society in China is far from empowered.  

Political purge 

“History always repeats itself,” rights lawyer Liang Xiaojun said. “This wave of trials reminds us of the Soviet Union’s Moscow trials, where all [defendants] confessed and claimed themselves to be the unpardonable wicked while singing praise to [the union’s leader Joseph] Stalin,” added Liang, who had represented Hu Shiquen in earlier cases.

The Moscow trials of the Soviet Union were generally seen as part of Stalin’s purge of opponents whose guilt was doubted to be genuine.  

Hu and three other Chinese activists – Zai Yanming, Zhou Shifeng and Gou Hongguo – stood trial at the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court from Tuesday to Friday. All were sentenced to prison following their trials.  

Without examining evidence or defending against the subversion charges, the court sessions were wrapped up in just a few hours, with the convictions based largely on confessions given after the defendants had been held incommunicado for 13 months and deprived of legal counsel of their own choosing. 

All four defendants promised not to appeal. 

“Today’s trial made me realize my sin. My past action has harmed the party and government. I hereby express my deepest repentance to the government,” Zhou Shifeng told the court on Thursday. 

Zhou was director of Beijing’s Fengrui law firm, which was at the center of the government’s crackdown against 300-strong legal defenders after having taken on sensitive cases where its clients challenged the authorities. 

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