Freed human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang is seeking to challenge the Chinese courts over his conviction for state subversion.
Wang was swept up in an unprecedented crackdown against lawyers and activists across the nation in 2015.
He was then held incommunicado, convicted in a closed-door hearing and denied access to proper legal representation. His lawyer said he was also tortured while in detention.
He was released on April 5 after serving a 4½-year sentence, but even then he was prevented from seeing his wife and son until later that month.
Wang said he would petition to challenge his conviction and said the courts had violated the Criminal Procedure Law by illegally detaining him for more than three years without trial and denying him a legal defence during the hearings.
“Procedural justice is what I have been desperately pursuing for years. Now that an unjust case has landed upon me, I will show how it can be overturned in real life,” he said.
The 44-year-old is known by his legal peers for representing causes that few other lawyers were prepared to take on, such as defending members of the outlawed Falun Gong religious sect.
“For years, we strived to reduce the likelihood of our clients being wrongfully convicted. What set me apart from other lawyers is how I could effectively deter unjust cases from moving ahead,” Wang said.
“I will make known to the public step by step how [court officials] violated criminal law procedures and hold the real law breakers accountable.”
His plan is expected to result in a lengthy legal battle and many observers remain sceptical about how Wang’s challenge to the authorities can succeed as the legal climate becomes increasingly repressive and hostile to human rights lawyers.
He was held as a part of a sweeping crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists that began on July 9 2015 with the arrest of lawyer Wang Yu, her husband Bao Longjun and teenage son in Beijing.
The nationwide purge – known as the 709 crackdown after the date it began – saw nearly 300 people being detained and prosecuted.
More than a dozen of those arrested have reported being tortured or forcibly medicated in custody.
By 2017 most of those prosecuted had pleaded guilty or reached an agreement with the authorities.
Although he was not one of the main targets of the crackdown, Wang’s refusal to plead guilty resulted in him being held in incommunicado for longer than anyone else.
He was not put on trial until December 2018, nearly 3½ years after his arrest in August 2015, and sentenced to 4½ years in jail the following month after a closed-door hearing in the northern city of Tianjin.
I was jailed for refusing to plead guilty, says Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang – but he shies away from questions about torture
According to Cheng Hai, Wang’s lawyer, his client had been denied access to at least five lawyers he appointed to represent him between 2015 and 2018.
Cheng also said police and legal officials in Tianjin had blocked him from seeing his client and seeing case documents.
“This effectively left Wang sitting through two hearings without any lawyer. This in itself is illegal,” Cheng said.
He also said Wang had been wrongfully convicted because it was based on civil offences that he had already been punished for.
Wang was twice placed in administrative detention by police for photographing court materials while representing a Falun Gong practitioner in Jiangsu province in 2013.
The next year he was detained and beaten up in Heilongjiang province for petitioning on behalf of lawyers trying to investigate allegations that Falun Gong prisoners had been tortured.
Cheng said Wang’s actions were not illegal and added that, in any case, the law did not allow him to be punished twice for the same offence.
Wang’s conviction was also based on his role in setting up a human rights advocacy group with Peter Dahlin, a Swedish activist who was later detained and forced to confess on Chinese state television before being deported.
The two had registered the group as a company in Hong Kong to operate more easily, but Cheng said they had not broken the law by doing so.
Citing a recorded face-to-face conversation with Wang, Cheng said his client had been subjected to “severe torture” in the first five months of his detention when he was held under residential surveillance in designated locations in Beijing and Tianjin.
“The torture put him through hell and back to the point that he contemplated suicide twice,” Cheng said.
“He was interrogated round the clock in rooms so tightly shut that no sunlight was allowed in, not even for one day in those five months.
“In the first month, interrogation would often begin at 7am and would not stop until 3 the next morning. He was repeatedly kicked and slapped, and the interrogators spat in his face.
“He was also made to hold up both his arms all day every day for an entire month, a punishment to make him mimic Falun Gong practitioners whom he previously represented. Both of his arms were badly swollen as a result.”
Other forms of torture included starvation, forced medication, pouring cold water down his neck and being made to maintain the same sleeping posture without moving.
Wang refused to confirm the torture.
“What I experienced was indeed very painful but it’s not worth mentioning when compared to the sufferings endured by other [709 lawyers],” he said.
“I don’t want to be seen as a courageous defender or a victim seeking compassion. I want to show as a lawyer how to turn injustice around in a case where the courts have broken their own laws by wrongfully convicting me.”
Professor Eva Pils, a specialist in Chinese human rights and professor of law at King’s College London, said he was unlikely to succeed in overturning his conviction.
“It is horrible to consider how the system has treated him and his family, but sadly it seems unlikely that the verdict, however unjust, can be removed,” Pils said.
But she said his legal challenge was a significant act of political resistance “consistent with his very steadfast refusal to admit guilt, to make a false confession while incarcerated, despite the pressure he was put under”.
Jerome Cohen, a professor of law at New York University and Chinese human rights expert, said: “Wang is an able lawyer and is capable of spelling out and challenging the many violations of criminal procedure law and criminal law that he suffered.”
But Cohen agreed he was unlikely to succeed without significant support at home and from overseas.
He said Wang could challenge another part of his sentence that deprived him of his “political rights” for five years after his release and also petition for a court review that would help publicise his case.
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This article Freed Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang to challenge subversion conviction first appeared on South China Morning Post