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(Xu Zhiyong, left, and Ding Jiaxi. Source: Reuters)

Two Leading Human Rights Lawyers Receive Harsh Prison Sentences in China

A Chinese court on April 10, 2023, sentenced civil rights lawyers Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi to 14 and 12 years in prison, respectively, on charges of “subversion of state power.” The two were put on closed-door trials in Linshu County in the northeastern province of Shandong in June 2022.

Xu and Ding are prominent figures in the New Citizens Movement, which sought greater transparency into the wealth of officials and for Chinese citizens to be able to exercise their civil rights as written in the constitution.

The charges stem from a private gathering they hosted in Xiamen in 2019 to discuss the future of China’s civil rights movement. Xu and Ding have been in custody for over three years, including a period spent in “residential surveillance at a designated location,” detention at a secret location without access to lawyers or family members, during which time both were allegedly tortured. The lengthy sentences shocked observers and highlighted the hard-line position the Party-state has taken against peaceful activism in the Xi Jinping era.

The New York Times reports that the length of the sentences surpassed even the dire predictions of the men’s family members and supporters. Mr. Xu had previously served four years in prison, and Mr. Ding three-and-a-half, also related to their work with the New Citizens Movement.

“Since it was a secret trial, we knew it wouldn’t be light, but we didn’t think it would be this heavy. Because everything they did was within the scope of free speech and what criminal law permits,” said Ms. Luo, who lives in the United States. “More than 10 years shows that this government has absolutely no ability for self-reflection or self-restraint anymore.” Luo Shengchun is the wife of Mr. Ding Jiaxi.

Human Rights Watch denounced the latest sentences as “cruelly farcical” and called for the men’s immediate release.

Mr. Xu, 50, a former law lecturer in Beijing, is one of China’s best-known advocates for civil liberties. He was a 2020 recipient of PEN America’s PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. Mr. Ding, 55, was an engineer before he became a commercial lawyer. In 2023, the United States Department of State awarded Ding the Global Human Rights Defender Award.