New York—A retired professor and father of a New York resident faces imminent sentencing for practicing Falun Gong after a trial last week in Shandong province that lasted just hours and at which police blocked his legal representation from attending. As part of a recent alarming trend of long sentences given to Falun Gong adherents, Mr. Zhang Xingwu now potentially faces up to 12 years in prison.
Zhang Xingwu (张兴武), a 67-year-old retired physics professor at Jinan Normal University in Shandong, was arrested from his home on July 16, 2008. His detention was part of a broader pre-Olympic round-up of people known to practice Falun Gong living in the vicinity of Qingdao, where the sailing competitions were held.
After over eight months of being held in detention, Professor Zhang was brought before a judge at Jinan Shizhong District Court on March 31, 2009. According to official documents (view), he faces charges of “using a heretical organization to undermine implementation of the law,” a vague provision of the criminal code commonly used to sentence Falun Gong adherents to prison terms of up to 12 years. (see Amnesty International report)
“As with hundreds of thousands of other Falun Gong practitioners, Professor Zhang should never have been arrested in the first place,” says Falun Gong spokesperson Erping Zhang. “Now this 67-year-old man faces the possibility of spending over a decade in jail. For what? For being known to the authorities as someone who practices Falun Gong and for living within 200 miles of an Olympic sporting venue.”
Police presence bars lawyer, family from trial
Despite his rights to legal representation under Chinese law, according to media reports and testimony from his family, a heavy police presence outside the courtroom prevented Zhang’s lawyer Li Subin from defending him in court and stopped relatives from observing the trial. Voice of America reported that eyewitnesses said there were 70 riot police and hundreds of plainclothes police surrounding the courthouse.
“On the day of the trial, they unlawfully blocked Zhang’s wife from leaving the house,” Li, a prominent Beijing lawyer known for his defense of dissidents and victims of religious persecution, told VOA (news) “For a short moment in the morning, we witnessed them arresting three people outside the court, all of whom perhaps just wanted to attend the trial. I hope they will free professor Zhang Xingwu as soon as possible and let him reunite with his family.”
According to sources close to the case, the heavy-handed police measures were aimed at making an example of Zhang as the first Falun Gong practitioner in the city, and possibly the province, to have hired a high-profile human rights lawyer likely to mount a strong defense on his behalf. Over the past year, a core group of lawyers have traveled the country defending adherents and calling into question in open court the entire policy of persecution.
Zhang’s case also fits into a broader, alarming pattern that the Center has observed since the end of the Beijing Olympics—a spike in the number of Falun Gong adherents being sentenced via criminal trials to lengthy prison terms. Over the past two weeks alone, the Center has received reports of over 28 practitioners being sentenced to up to 14 years in prison (news).
Zhang and his wife Liu Pinjie have practiced Falun Gong since 1995 and have been repeatedly detained since the discipline was banned in 1999. From 2001 to 2004, Zhang spent three years at Jinan Liuchangshan “re-education through labor” (RTL) camp. During that time, the elderly adherent suffered sleep deprivation, beatings, electric baton shocks, and other forms of torture.
Since his arrest, Zhang has been held at Jinan City Detention Center and his family has been denied the right to visit him, though he has met with his lawyer briefly on a small number of occasions. According to his daughter, the case was returned to the procuratorate twice for lack of evidence, but the 610 Office—an extra-legal agency created to oversee the campaign against Falun Gong—submitted the case a third time to the district court. In August, the New York Daily News ran an article by Zhang’s daughter detailing the circumstances of her father’s arrest and the broader family history of being victims of religious persecution (news).
The FDIC is calling for:
- Zhang Xingwu’s immediate and unconditional release, as he has been detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his fundamental right to freedom of belief. This right is enshrined in Articles 35 of the Chinese Constitution and China’s commitments under international law.
- The international community to pressure the Chinese authorities to release Zhang.
- Foreign media in China to investigate Zhang’s case and the broader trend of Falun Gong adherents arrested in the pre-Olympic purge being sentenced to extremely long prison terms.