A Chinese court’s decision to uphold an especially harsh prison sentence against one of the country’s most prominent dissidents drew angry international protests Thursday. But the criticism of China will almost certainly go unheeded.
United States Ambassador Jon Huntsman, in an unusual public statement, urged the Chinese government to release Liu Xiaobo, whose appeal against an 11-year sentence for “incitement to subversion” was rejected by a Beijing court.
Mr. Liu, a veteran campaigner for greater political freedom had “peacefully worked for the establishment of political openness and accountability in China,” said Mr. Huntsman in a statement read out by a US diplomat outside the courthouse Thursday morning.
About 20 other foreign diplomats showed their support for Liu by appearing outside the court. The verdict condemning Liu to jail “is entirely incompatible with his right to freedom of expression,” a European Union statement said.
Harshest sentence in memory
Liu appealed a sentence, handed down on Dec. 25, that shocked relatives and rights activists with its harshness. It was the heaviest punishment for such a crime that lawyers could remember.
“His harsh sentence is a stark reminder to the Chinese people and the world that there is still no freedom of expression or independent judiciary in China,” says Roseann Rife, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty International.
Liu, a scholar and literary critic, was charged with “incitement to subversion” because he coauthored Charter 08, a petition for political freedom and an end to the ruling Communist party’s monopoly of power. The online petition has garnered thousands of signatures since it was released just over a year ago.
“This is a really, really difficult time for human rights in China right now,” says John Kamm, who heads the US-based human rights group Dui Hua.
Still, the very length of Liu’s sentence could prompt a rethink by the Chinese authorities, he suggests.
“It is ridiculous and outrageous” and has heaped widespread public condemnation on Beijing’s head, says Mr. Kamm, who has been making behind-the-scenes efforts to release Chinese political prisoners for more than two decades.
“This is a tipping point,” he predicts. “I think they will have to work themselves out of this in a less hard-line way,” by treating future political detainees more cautiously.
Back to jail
Liu is all too familiar with Chinese jails; he was first locked up in 1989 for his role during the Tiananmen Square protests, having returned home to join them after only two months on a visiting scholarship at Columbia University in New York.
He was imprisoned twice more for his writings before being arrested in December 2008, two days before Charter 08 was due to be released.
Throughout his tribulations Liu has kept his faith in the future. “I firmly believe that China’s political progress will not stop,” he wrote in a personal statement he was prevented from reading at his trial last December.
“I look forward to the day when my country will be a land where opinions can be freely expressed … without any fear,” he wrote. “I hope that I shall be the last victim of China’s unending imprisonment of writers and that no one else will be made a criminal for what they say.”
An unrelenting trend?
The last week has offered little evidence that such a day will dawn soon. One human rights activist in Sichuan was sentenced to five years in jail Tuesday for having publicly blamed the earthquake deaths of thousands of children on shoddily built schools; another who had helped bereaved parents planning to sue the authorities had seen his appeal against a three-year prison term turned down a day earlier.
On Wednesday a young factory worker who said he had joined a banned political party because he did not like the Communist party’s abuse of power was found guilty of subversion by a court in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen and sentenced to 18 months in jail.
“Liu Xiaobo’s sentence is evidence of a very tough line, but will that tough line endure?” wonders Kamm. “Are we going to return to a discourse on human rights with China, or is China going to go its own way?
“At some point,” he says hopefully, “the pendulum will swing back.”
Follow us on Twitter.