BEIJING — A Chinese court today upheld a four-year sentence for a blind activist in a prosecution marked by irregularities and violence after he documented cases of forced abortions and sterilizations, his wife said.
Chen Guangcheng, a charismatic "barefoot lawyer" with limited training, brought global attention to the plight of thousands of villagers in northeastern Shandong province forced in 2004 and 2005 to comply with strict limits imposed under China's one-child policy.
Although pressure is common in local population programs, these cases were extreme. Villagers reported being forced to undergo late-term abortions, with relatives of those who tried to flee in effect held hostage by authorities.
In a 30-minute session early today, the Yinan County court upheld the harsh sentence for destroying public property and "organizing a mob to disturb traffic," charges Chen's attorneys said were trumped up.
"I'm very shocked," Chen's wife, Yuan Weijing, said from a hospital bed. "We didn't expect authorities to play the role of hooligan again and hand down the same sentence."
Yuan checked herself into a hospital because of stress from the case. She was detained for nine hours Tuesday by local police officials who were worried she might travel to Beijing, she said, the latest in a series of beatings, harassment and acts of intimidation she and her husband have endured over the last year.
"The doctors have told me not to get angry, so I'm trying not to think about this too much," she said.
Chen's brother, who attended the retrial, said the evidence supported a verdict of not guilty. "This isn't the result of law but power interference," he said. "We cannot accept this result."
Chen was beaten repeatedly and arrested several times in late 2005 and early 2006, said lawyers and human rights activists. Although he was detained in March, his trial was not held until August.
His lawyers were beaten. Then, hours before the trial, they were detained, forcing Chen to use a court-appointed lawyer unfamiliar with the case; and cross-examination was disallowed. Key witnesses for his defense were also detained or disappeared.
In a rare step, an intermediate court overturned the sentence, but sent the case back to the lower court that handed down the original verdict.
"The verdict shows that the court didn't listen to any of the lawyer's opinions," said Teng Biao, a Beijing-based attorney who has worked on Chen's behalf. "They must have made the decision before the trial. This amounts to malevolent retaliation by the local government."
Chen has received widespread support and attention inside and outside China. Lawyers and human rights officials said China's one-party state agreed to a retrial amid concern that the irregularities would further damage the reputation of the court system.
But ultimately the Communist Party concluded that a lighter sentence might encourage other groups to use similar tactics, they added, which it feared might undermine its control.
"This shows the party wants to remain firmly in control of the definition of public interest," said Nicholas Bequelin, China researcher with Human Rights Watch. "They're worried that this case might embolden and strengthen China's nascent civil rights movement."