Free speech champions all around the world watched with great concern the high-profile trial of Pu Zhiqiang — one of the most prominent civil rights lawyers in China.
Foreign officials had already denounced his arrest as political persecution to silence the outspoken activist, particularly because the charges against him were limited to the anti-government comments he had made on Weibo, China’s micro-blogging platform.
However, in a surprising turn of events, the lawyer, who was expected to receive up to eight years in prison, was only given a suspended sentence. Although he was convicted of two crimes, his sentence — three years in prison and a three-year reprieve — means that the 50-year-old won't serve any more time behind bars.
“According to Chinese law, whoever is given a criminal punishment, except for crimes that are unintentional, will never be allowed to practice law again,” Pu’s lawyer Mo Shaoping said after the ruling, adding that his client will not appeal the judgment.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International said the suspended prison sentence was “a deliberate attempt by the Chinese authorities to shackle a champion of freedom of expression.”
“Clearly it is positive that Pu Zhiqiang is unlikely to spend another night in jail, yet that cannot hide the gross injustice against him,” William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “He is no criminal and this guilty verdict effectively shackles one of China's bravest champions of human rights from practicing law.”
Authorities arrested the activist in May 2014 after he attended a seminar on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Although the one-time defendant of artist Ai Weiwei was initially charged with four separate offenses — including “inciting ethnic hatred,” “picking quarrels” and “provoking trouble” — two charges were dropped before the trial began.
Since China has a history of severe punishments, the comparatively lenient sentencing could mean either the government hopes to avoid criticism for being too harsh, or that it wants to avoid protests and unrest.
As far as Pu’s supporters are concerned, many of them believe that his verdict was not justified. However, they were pleased that the activist was finally out of jail.
“After all, an innocent man has been locked up for 19 months. Under the suspended sentence, he finally can get out,” said supporter Ren Jianyu. “It's good news but with a feeling of helplessness.”
Pu seems to be one of the lucky ones. Reports suggest that China has arrested and imprisoned hundreds of human rights lawyer, advocates and journalists during a far-reaching crackdown on dissent under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.