Wednesday, December 30, 2009

No forgiveness; no quarter. Happy Christmas from China

Harsh justice in China

A SEASON of good cheer in much of the world, late December saw a typically harsh apportionment of justice by China’s legal system, and a typically rigid display of governmental indifference to foreign opinion. On Christmas Day a Beijing court sentenced Liu Xiaobo, a veteran human-rights activist, to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power”. China swatted away all criticism about this as groundless meddling in its internal affairs.

In a separate case that was not entirely an internal affair, China’s reaction was not much different. On December 21st Akmal Shaikh, a 53-year-old Briton charged with smuggling drugs, had his death sentence upheld by China’s Supreme People’s Court. Rejecting pleas for clemency from Mr Shaikh’s family, international human-rights groups, and the British government, Chinese authorities executed him by lethal injection on December 29th in the north-western region of Xinjiang, where he was first arrested in late 2007 after carrying roughly 4kg of heroin into the country.
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Family members claimed Mr Shaikh suffered from bipolar disorder, and was the victim of manipulation by the drugs traffickers who, they claimed, tricked him into carrying the contraband. British officials announced news of the execution before China did. Hours after it took place China’s foreign-ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said it would brook no outside interference in the workings of its legal system, and expressed “strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition” to Britain’s complaints. The prime minister, Gordon Brown had said he was “appalled” and condemned the execution “in the strongest terms”. Ms Jiang said Mr Shaikh’s case was handled appropriately and all his legal rights had been honoured at trial. A day after the execution, Chinese newspapers were full of angry commentary over Britain’s attempt to intervene. Many drew comparisons to the Opium War.

Although it ended in the first known execution of a European in China since the 1950s, Mr Shaikh’s case was otherwise not unusual. According to available (and incomplete) statistics, China executed 1,700 convicts in 2008, or nearly five each day.

Neither was the harsh treatment meted out to Mr Liu unusual by Chinese standards. Criticism of the government, though always risky, is sometimes tolerated. Attempts to organise criticism, however, as Mr Liu had by helping draft a petition calling for political freedoms, are routinely met with a firm thumping. Jailed twice before for his political activities Mr Liu knew this as well as anyone. He had said he was ready to face prison again.

The document he helped write in December 2008 was called Charter 08. It soon attracted more than 300 other Chinese signatures. Its publication marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the year since its release, thousands more have signed it.

Charter 08 calls for sweeping changes in China’s political order, including an end to limits on free expression, political activity and religious practice. It proposes drastic reforms that would dismantle one-party rule, allow public supervision of government officials, and free the army and judiciary from Communist Party control.

Mr Liu was detained just before the release of the manifesto and held for six months before charges were lodged. His sentencing came two days after a trial lasting less than three hours. The 11-year term exceeds any other known sentence for the vague crime of “inciting subversion”. Within days of the sentencing, Chinese media published a speech by a senior security official who warned of threats to China’s social stability from “hostile forces stirring up chaos” and called for “pre-emptive attacks” against them. “In the new year, there will be no relaxation of stability preservation, and no lightening of pressure on stability,” said Yang Huanning, a deputy minister of public security.

Mr Liu won supporters on the internet, a central theatre these days in the struggle for civil liberties. The authorities are moving to tighten their control there. Besides stepping up monitoring and blocking “unsuitable” web traffic, regulators have put new restrictions on the registration and operation of websites by individuals.

The founder of a web-hosting service in Beijing says that internet servers have been unceremoniously unplugged under new rules and new standards of enforcement. “For nine years I have run a successful and legal business, and now I have suddenly been told that what I do makes me a criminal.” Worried that his company may not survive, and angry about the arbitrary changes, he will not, however, circulate a protest petition—not if he is wise, that is. The Economist

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