08/25/2006, 00.00
CHINA
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Shandong: blind activist condemned to four years in prison

Chen Guangcheng, who denounced forced abortions in his home province, was found guilty of damaging a car and blocking traffic. Yesterday, sentence was also handed down to Zhao Yan, accused of revealing state secrets abroad: three years for "fraud".

Yinan (AsiaNews/SCMP) – A court in the eastern Shandong province yesterday sentenced blind human rights activist, Chen Guangcheng, to four years and three months in prison. His controversial trial lasted a week and was marred by the sudden arrest of his defence lawyer.

The court in Yinan County found Chen guilty of "intentionally damaging property" and "organising a mob to disrupt traffic".

Chen is known across the country for his work for people with disabilities and for his campaign again government birth control policies. He helped journalists of the Washington Post to unearth evidence of a coercive abortion campaign targeting women in his city. Thanks to the information he provided, the American newspaper was able to prove that in recent years, the authorities of central-eastern province had forcibly sterilized more than 7,000 people.

After the allegations were published, China's Family Planning Agency was forced to admit on 19 September last year that some government representatives "had carried out forced abortions and sterilizations in violation of citizens' legal rights."

Xinhua – the government press agency – reported the sentence but Chen's family has not yet been formally informed. Chen Guangfu, the condemned man's elder brother, described the verdict as "illegal": he was one of three relatives of Chen allowed to attend the trial.

He said:  "The authorities appointed two lawyers to represent him, but all they said in the court was, 'We have no objection'." The activist meanwhile refused to speak at his trial as a sign of protest against the detention of his lawyer Xu Zhiyong. The judge interpreted his silence to mean "he accepted the charges against him". Xu was apprehended by police on the eve of the trial and accused of theft; the two lawyers were appointed to take his place an hour before the trial began.

According to his brother, the sentence was riddled with irregularities: "Even if he had damaged the property, the damage amounted to 5,440 yuan [around 544 euros ed.]. Is this sum worth such a heavy penalty of four years in prison?" He added: "And my brother was not involved at all. He is blind and was not allowed to come out of the house - how could he incite people to damage a car?"

Yuan Weijing, the wife of the condemned man, said his family would appeal against the verdict although they would probably be unable to access legal aid. The same arbitrary justice was meted out to Zhao Yan, a journalist accused of revealed state secrets abroad: a Bejing court dropped the charges of spying but condemned him to three years of imprisonment for fraud. The details of the formulation of charges and the evidence used to convict him were not revealed.

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