Chinese authorities have given a six-and-a-half year prison term to human rights lawyer Li Yuhan for “fraud” and “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” – a charge often used to target peaceful critics of the ruling Communist Party.
The Heping District People’s Court in Shenyang, in northeastern China’s Liaoning province, imposed the sentence at a hearing on Oct. 25 amid tight security and a large police presence in the streets outside, a family member told Radio Free Asia on Thursday.
Li, who is in her 70s and needs assistance to walk, has spent the past six years in a detention center, so would be freed in April. Still, she said she will appeal the sentence.
For her brother, Li Yongsheng, it was the first time he had seen her since her trial two years ago – after which no verdict was rendered.
“She has aged significantly,” he said. “Two police officers had to assist her to walk; she was no longer able to walk normally.”
He said there are also signs that her long incarceration has taken a toll on Li’s mental state.
“Her thinking is confused, and her reactions are slower, and she has muddled logic,” he said.
Her brother said the court building was cordoned off on all sides with iron barriers, with dozens of police and security personnel in the area. No passers-by were allowed through, and no other business was conducted in the court that day, he said.
Defended rights lawyer
Li is widely believed to have been targeted for her defense of prominent rights lawyer Wang Yu, who was among the first people to be detained in a nationwide operation targeting rights lawyers and activists in July 2015.
“Another reason is that before her arrest, my sister had been handling other sensitive cases, various complaints and accusations, which had caused a lot of trouble for local governments,” Li Yongsheng said on Thursday.
Li is being held in the Shenyang No. 1 Detention Center, where she has reportedly spent some time on hunger strike.
Lawyers say China’s police-run detention centers are often overcrowded and lack facilities to ensure adequate medical care for inmates. Li has been hospitalized at least twice and given a number of medications, but applications for medical parole have been denied.
A legal expert who asked to remain anonymous for fear of political reprisals told Radio Free Asia that the long delay in Li’s case was likely because the authorities were trying to elicit a “confession” from her, which she has repeatedly refused to give.
He said the authorities had to sentence her for at least as long as she has already spent behind bars, but said the April 2024 release date was still a “relatively good outcome” for such a politically sensitive case.
“The authorities can’t afford to admit to any error; now that they’ve detained her for that long, they have to sentence her accordingly,” the expert said.
She paid ‘a huge price’
Li initially went missing on Oct. 9, 2017, and has been “at risk of torture and other ill-treatment” in the detention center, London-based Amnesty International said at the time. The group called for her immediate release.
Li has paid “a huge price” for her defense of individuals unjustly accused of wrongdoing, said
Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for China Sarah Brooks.
“She should be released immediately and unconditionally, and the multiple allegations of her ill-treatment in detention independently investigated,” Brooks said.
“Lawyer Li has been arbitrarily detained for six years [and] should be at home with her family, not in prison for merely doing her job to defend peoples’ human rights,” she added.
Li Yongsheng, her brother, said the family has made written complaints over the authorities’ handling of the case, in particular questioning why it was given to the Heping district court in the first place.
“Heping district isn’t her place of residence, nor where her household registration is, and it’s not where the alleged ‘crimes’ occurred, either,” he said. “So there are indeed questions about its jurisdiction here.”
But he said that despite “brilliant arguments” from Li’s defense team, “we can’t influence this kind of trial.”
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.