Jailed citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for posting reports from Wuhan during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the city, spoke up in court and challenged the judge during her trial earlier this week, RFA has learned.
Zhang, 37, appeared in the Pudong New District People’s Court in a wheelchair on Tuesday after being force-fed during a hunger strike in the Pudong New District Detention Center.
She was found guilty of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” a charge frequently used to target critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), on the basis that she had published “false information” about the pandemic on social media sites.
Zhang refused to speak when asked by the judge to confirm her personal details, the lawyer said.
The judge then instructed the clerk to record that she hadn’t replied, whereupon Zhang retorted: “Doesn’t your conscience tell you that what you are doing is wrong, in putting me in the dock?”
The judge said nothing in reply, and the trial proceeded to the stage where the defendant is informed of their rights and obligations in court.
Asked if she had anything to say, Zhang replied: “I’m not going to answer you until you correct your mistake.”
She continued: “It’s not I who is on trial here today, it’s you.”
Zhang later referred to the court process as “your judicial game.”
When the prosecutor had finished reading the indictment, the judge asked Zhang if the indictment was true.
Zhang replied with a historical reference.
“Even during the Han Dynasty [202 BC–9 AD], it wasn’t a crime to criticize the government,” she told the judge.
Later, the state prosecutor asked Zhang whether she had indeed posted reports from Wuhan to YouTube and Twitter.
Zhang replied: “These absurd questions are the whole reason our country is in decline.”
Later, when her defense attorney Ren Quanniu asked her the same question, she replied that it is wrong of the government to criminalize public speech.
“Because it means every word I speak must be censored,” she said. “Does the state have the power to censor the speech of its citizens?”
She added that the videos she posted were based on first-hand interviews conducted with the people of Wuhan, and not rumors.
“But if the state prosecutor wants to censor the people, they can take anyone to court,” she said.
Zhang’s defense attorney Zhang Keke declined to comment on the trial, saying it was “inconvenient,” a phrase often used to indicate pressure from the authorities.
“It is not convenient to accept interviews with foreign media,” Zhang Keke said.
Impressive and admirable
Tsinghua University professor Guo Yuhua said he admired Zhang and other citizen journalists including Chen Qiushi for trying to bring the truth about the pandemic in China to a wider audience.
“From Chen Qiushi to Zhang Zhan, I think they are all very impressive and to be admired,” Guo told RFA.
“I have always paid special attention to them … and I support what they do,” he said. “But at the same time there is a feeling of powerlessness, knowing that there is nothing we can do for them.”
Zhang’s trial and sentencing drew condemnation from Washington.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. strongly condemned the “sham prosecution and conviction.”
“The rest of the world relied heavily on uncensored reports from citizen journalists like Zhang to understand the true situation in Wuhan,” Pompeo said.
“Her hasty trial, to which foreign observers were denied access, shows how fearful the [ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)] is of Chinese citizens who speak the truth.”
Pompeo called for Zhang’s immediate and unconditional release.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
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