Friday, April 4, 2008

Some Observations on the Conviction of Hu Jia

The prominent Chinese rights activist Hu Jia (胡佳) was sentenced yesterday to 3-1/2 years imprisonment by the Beijing Number One Intermediate People's Court. According to the Xinhua News Agency's official report on the conviction, "Hu published articles on overseas-run websites, made comments in interviews with foreign media, and repeatedly instigated other people to subvert the state's political power and socialist system."

Hu's case can be examined from a number of angles—for example, whether China's laws against "incitement" contravene the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or whether punishing Hu is part of a larger effort to silence dissent in advance of the Beijing Olympics. Here, though, we explore briefly two aspects of the way Hu Jia's case was handled and try to place his case in a bit more context.

What's the Rush?

It took only 98 days from the time Hu Jia was detained for the court to render its verdict. This is an unusually short amount of time to investigate and try a political case in China. Although time limits for each stage in the legal process are spelled out in China's criminal procedure law, numerous provisions allowing for extensions make those deadlines highly elastic.

To compare, we checked Dui Hua's prisoner information database and came up with a collection of 48 other cases involving a single charge of inciting subversion in which the dates of detention and sentencing were both known. These 48 cases cover the period from October 1997, when the law prohibiting "inciting subversion" came into force, until March 2008 and originate from 22 of China's 31 provinces and municipalities.

In this sample, The median amount of time taken to process a case of inciting subversion was 229 days, more than four months longer than in Hu's case. Jiang Qisheng (江棋生), a veteran democracy activist who called for a candlelight vigil to mark the tenth anniversary of the crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, spent more than 19 months in detention before being sentenced to four years' imprisonment. Yang Chunlin (杨春林), the land-rights activist whose petition demanding "human rights, not the Olympics" gathered more than 10,000 signatures and brought a five-year sentence for "inciting subversion" less than two weeks ago, spent more than 260 days in detention.

On the one hand, we might welcome the fact that, unlike so many other cases involving political crime, Hu's case was handled in accordance with the time limits set out by law. However, given the atypical nature of such judicial dispatch, one cannot help but suspect that the relevant authorities were reluctant to announce a judgment against Hu too close to the Olympics (where it might cause image problems), preferring instead to send an early warning to other activists not to make trouble.

A Lenient Sentence?

Xinhua also noted that, in light of Hu's "confession of crime and acceptance of punishment," the court had judged leniently and handed down a lighter sentence.

Just how light a sentence did Hu receive? Chinese law sets the maximum sentence for the crime of "inciting subversion" at five years' imprisonment, unless the crime can be considered major, in which case a fixed-term sentence of more than five years is allowed. Also, those previously convicted of criminal charges who re-offend within five years of completing their sentence are also subject to heavier penalties.

Whether or not the court determined Hu's crimes to be major will likely remain unknown until the verdict becomes available, but given what is known about the charges raised by the prosecution it seems unlikely that the court would make such a determination. Moreover, we know that Hu had no previous convictions.

Looking again at the 48-case sample, we find the median punishment for inciting subversion to be . . . exactly 3-1/2 years. Because Chinese courts do not reveal the considerations that go into determining sentencing, it is impossible to know the basis for considering Hu's sentence to be "lenient."

In fact, recent years have seen several similar, high-profile cases that were arguably handled more leniently. Suspended sentences were given to both Du Daobin (杜导斌), another critic of the government whose essays frequently appeared on overseas web sites, and Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), the crusading human rights lawyer who represented defendants in a number of controversial cases. In November 2003, Beijing Normal University student Liu Di (刘荻) was released after 386 days spent in detention for her Internet essays and alleged involvement in organizing an opposition party; prosecutors subsequently determined her crimes to be too minor to prosecute and set her free.

Concluding Remarks

China's judicial system is far from transparent, and the number of cases we know about is small relative to the total number of incitement cases. (Official statistics revealed over the past six months have shown that we know fewer than five percent of the names of people arrested for political crime in China. Our knowledge about the outcomes of political trials is limited to a similar degree.) Nevertheless, based on what evidence is available, it certainly appears that Hu Jia's case was handled with unusual urgency, if not particular lenience.

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