China Jails Ex-Lawyer for Four Years Over Virus Reports in Wuhan

China has sentenced a former lawyer to four years in prison over her posts about the coronavirus response in Wuhan, media reports said, the first known conviction of someone who chronicled authorities’ early struggle to manage the outbreak.

Zhang Zhan, 37, was convicted at the Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Court on Monday of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” the South China Morning Post reported, citing one of her lawyers. The offense carries a maximum sentence of five years. The Hong Kong Free Press earlier reported the sentencing.

The verdict represents China’s latest effort to punish those who exposed shortcomings in the country’s initial response to the virus, which was first discovered a year ago in the central city of Wuhan before spreading around the globe. After being accused of covering up the severity of the virus, President Xi Jinping’s government has sought to recast its response as competent and compassionate.

China Jails Ex-Lawyer for Four Years Over Virus Reports in Wuhan

Zhang was among several journalists -- professionals and amateurs alike -- who rushed to cover the outbreak in Wuhan and its aftermath. Her posts included a video of hospital hallways lined with patients on oxygen and another suggesting that people had been charged for virus tests they expected to be free.

The Covid-19 death of Li Wenliang -- a Wuhan doctor admonished by the local government for warning about the virus -- sparked a rare public outcry demanding freedom of speech and questioning of the country’s system of governance. While the government embraced Li’s story, framing him as a martyr rather than a silenced whistle-blower, authorities also launched investigations into other critics of Beijing’s response.

Such incidents undercut the official narrative and fanned speculation that the outbreak could feed discontent with the ruling party. The revelations have also helped fueled criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump and others that China played down the outbreak and contributed to its spread around the world.

Zhang stopped posting in May and authorities later revealed that she had been detained on allegations of spreading lies. Her lawyer told CBS News earlier this month that she had been force-fed after starting a hunger strike in detention and that her health had deteriorated.

Several other citizen journalists have disappeared from Wuhan, part of what Human Rights Watch said Saturday was a surge in such detentions. The New York-based group called for China to drop all charges and release journalists being held and identified journalists it said should be released.

Cheng Lei, a Chinese-born Australian national who worked for state broadcaster CGTN is being detained on national security charges, while two journalists working for Australian media outlets fled the country earlier this year after being questioned by security agents. The New York Times reported this month that Du Bin, a Chinese national who has worked as a freelance photographer for the paper, had been detained.

Meanwhile, Haze Fan, a Bloomberg News staffer who is a Chinese citizen, was detained earlier this month in Beijing. While China has confirmed that Fan is being held by the Beijing Municipal National Security Bureau on suspicion of endangering national security, authorities haven’t released further details about her case.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.