China: Trials of leading activists expose deep hypocrisy on rule of law

Trials of two leading activists on Friday will lay bare the Chinese authorities’ duplicity over the rule of law, Amnesty International said. 

Gao Yu, 70, a highly respected journalist, is accused of sharing state secrets and could face a life sentence if convicted at her trial in Beijing, which is being held behind closed doors.  

In a separate case on the other side of the country, in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, prominent Uighur academic Ilham Tohti, 45, is due to learn the outcome of his appeal against a life sentence for “separatism”, handed down on 23 September. Both cases have been marked by serious legal failures including the use of torture and other ill-treatment. 

“If Gao Yu and Ilham Tohti were to receive genuinely fair hearings, the charges against them would be dismissed as blatant political persecution,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.   

“President Xi has played up the importance of the rule of law, but that is a mere façade when it comes to cases the government deems to be politically ‘sensitive’. The authorities still pick and choose when to apply the rule of law.” 

According to media reports, Gao is accused of sharing an internal Communist Party ideological paper, known as Document No. 9, with a foreign news site. The information contained in the paper in no way merits being classified as a state secret. Freedom of the press and “universal values”, such as freedom, democracy and human rights, come under severe attack in the document. 

In May, state television CCTV broadcast a “confession” by Gao. However, her lawyers say this was obtained illegally, since she felt threatened and was under intense psychological pressure. She also did not know that it would be televised.

“Gao is the latest victim of China’s vaguely worded and arbitrary state secret laws which the authorities continue to use to target activists. Her TV “confession” proves nothing, but seriously undermines her chance of a fair trial,” said William Nee. 

The use of torture or other means of duress to obtain a "confession” is illegal in China, as it is under international law, and such testimonies should be barred as evidence at trial but in reality this is rarely enforced.

The rule of law was the focus of a recent key annual meeting of China’s Communist Party. Officials pledged to implement safeguards to prevent confessions obtained through torture being used as evidence in court. The Supreme People’s Court has taken steps to draft regulations on this issue. 

“At best, the authorities are engaged in an act of double-think. On the one hand emphasizing the importance of the rule of law, while on the other encouraging courts to turn a blind eye in ‘sensitive’ cases,” said William Nee.

Appeal of Ilham Tohti

Meanwhile, the authorities have refused to allow Ilham Tohti’s family to attend his appeal. According to his lawyers, Tohti was denied food for 10 days and had his feet shackled for more than 20 days while in detention ahead of his initial trial in September. 

Much of the evidence against Tohti at that trial came from statements by seven of his former students, who were arrested along with Tohti in January 2014 and face similar charges of “separatism”. 

There is strong reason to believe that the Uighur students, who remain in detention, gave their statements under coercion and continue to face similar forms of torture and other ill-treatment that Tohti suffered. 

“The treatment of Ilham Tohti again exposes the hypocrisy of the Chinese authorities when it comes to the rule of law. He is a prisoner of conscience and should be immediately and unconditionally released,” said William Nee.