China Convicts Prominent Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang of Speech Violations While Nominated for Columbia 2016 Global Freedom of Expression Award

A court in Beijing convicted Pu Zhiqiang, one of China’s foremost human rights lawyers, of crimes early on December 22, 2015 because of comments he posted online. The court sentenced Pu to three years in prison, but, according to the BBC, said that the sentence would be suspended.

The charges against the lawyer essentially equate the exercise of freedom of expression with criminal activity. Ironically, Pu frequently appeared in court on behalf of clients to advocate for freedom of expression and freedom of information.

The Chinese government claims that Pu, in seven Twitter-like posts on Weibo “created disturbances” or “provoked ethnic relations” in his criticism of the Chinese rulers or political conditions, according to Human Rights Watch, which lambasted the charges against Pu.

Last month, an international working group of individuals nominated Pu Zhiqiang for the 2016 Global Freedom of Expression Award at Columbia University in New York. The international working group is comprised of more than a dozen writers, activists, scholars, legal observers and concerned citizens living in four countries.

Pu is known for his tenacious defense of writers, publishers, artists and activists in China whose commentary has made them targets of the government. Among his most famous clients is the artist Ai Weiwei.

Pu served as defense attorney in 2004 to Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, authors of a book, An Investigation of Chinese Peasants, about cases of excessive taxation by local Communist Party officials. The couple was charged with libel. Unusually, the trial judge decided not to issue a verdict. Washington Post reporter Philip P. Pan wrote about the case in his 2009 book Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, describing how Pu’s masterful arguments for his clients completely shifted the focus in the courtroom to government misdeeds.

In another 2004 case, Pu successfully defended China Reform magazine from a real estate developer who accused the publication of libel. The Chinese court determined that journalists cannot be held liable legally as long as they base their stories on information obtained from reasonably reliable sources.

Pu received a bachelor’s degree in history from Nankai University in 1986, and LL.M. degree from China University of Political Science and Law in 1991. He joined the pro-democracy movement in 1989, and, as he wrote in an article for the New York Review of Books, would return each year to Tiananmen Square to commemorate the June 4th massacre.

The working group that nominated Pu for the Columbia Global Freedom of Expression Award includes Liao Yiwu, writer and former political prisoner; Jim Glanzer, Manager, Bruder Capital in New York City and Columbia MBA graduate; Han Lianchao, Vice President, Initiatives for China; Andrew Nathan, Columbia University Professor of Political Science; Yang Jianli, President, Initiatives for China; Rose Tang, author and Tiananmen Massacre survivor; Tienchi Martin Liao, former president Independent Chinese PEN; Wang Tiancheng, former lecturer Peking University Law School and a Pu client; Chu Hailan, translator and democracy activist; Liu Wei, human rights law activist in China; Herbert Wiesner, author and former German PEN Centre Secretary General; Liu Nianchun, poet and democracy activist and former political prisoner. (Full disclosure: I am one of the signatories, as well.) Other nominators on the working group are anonymous for reasons related to geography or political sensitivity.

Journalists attempting to cover Pu’s trial on December 14, 2015 reported that they were pushed away by guards and plainclothes officers. Pu was detained in May 2014after attending a meeting about the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in 1989, a topic that is censored in China. He has been held in custody for 19 months, despite diabetes and other adverse health conditions. Pu’s entire trial lasted three hours.

In 2009, China waited until December 25, a quiet day for Western media, to announce an especially harsh 11-year sentence for Liu Xiaobo, the well-known freedom of speech advocate in China, former president of Independent Chinese PEN and a leading drafter of the democracy manifesto, Charter 08. Liu won the Nobel Peace Prize one year later for his peaceful pursuit of human rights in China, but is still held incommunicado in a Chinese prison. His spouse, Liu Xia, has been held in isolated house detention ever since.

This is the second year of the Columbia Global Freedom of Expression Award. Last year’s winners were announced in March. (The awards went to Media Legal Defence Initiative for its work in Burkina Faso, the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe for striking down the offence of criminal defamation, and the Constitutional Court of Turkey for lifting bans on Twitter and YouTube.)

Columbia Global Freedom of Expression was launched in 2014 “to advance understanding of the international and national norms and institutes that best protect the free flow of information and expression in an interconnected global community,” according to its website. Dr. Agnès Callamard, a human rights expert and former director of the organization ARTICLE 19, is executive director.

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