By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
(Worthy News) - China faces international pressure for sentencing an independent Christian journalist to four-year imprisonment over her coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan city. Zhang Zhan, 37, reportedly saw it as "God's will' to be among the few people whose firsthand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets painted a more gloomy picture of the COVID-19 epicenter than the official narrative.
In the financial hub Shanghai, the Pudong New Area People's Court reportedly said the devoted Christian must go to prison for "picking fights and provoking trouble." However, the United Nations human rights office demanded Zhang's release. "We raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020," it wrote on social networking site Twitter. The UN's rights office called her sentence "an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to #COVID19 & continue to call for her release."
Her defense team said they would probably appeal the December 28 ruling. Zhang's lengthy sentence added to concern among family members and the local Christian community. "I don't understand. All she did was say a few true words, and for that, she got four years," argued Shao Wenxia, Zhang's mother, who attended the trial with her husband.
A man in a wheelchair, who reportedly came from the central province of Henan to demonstrate support for Zhang as a fellow Christian, wrote her name on a poster. He was police-escorted away by police, Reuters news agency reported.
International journalists were also denied access to the court when Zhang was tried "due to the epidemic," court security officials said. The United States has accused China of covering up the initial outbreak and delaying crucial information release. Critics say that allowed the virus to spread and contributed to sickening more than 80 million people worldwide and killing some 1.8 million persons.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo views Zhang's "hasty trial" and sentence as part of China's crackdown on criticism. "The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has shown once again it will do whatever it takes to silence those who question the Party's official line. Even regarding crucial public health information," he added in a statement.
Pompeo stressed that due to the "CCP's gross malfeasance, the rest of the world relied heavily on uncensored reports from citizen journalists like Zhang to understand the true situation in Wuhan after the CCP-imposed strict media controls were enforced." He added that "a controllable outbreak turned into a deadly global pandemic. Her hasty trial, to which foreign observers were denied access, shows how fearful the CCP is of Chinese citizens who speak the truth."
Pompeo stressed that China's "fear of transparency and its ongoing repression of fundamental freedoms are a sign of weakness, not strength, and a threat to all of us." Beijing denied wrongdoing, saying it took swift action that bought time for the rest of the world to prepare for COVID-19.
A former lawyer, Zhang arrived in Wuhan on February 1 from her home in Shanghai. Her short video clips uploaded to the YouTube video sharing service includes interviews with residents. The clips also carry commentary and footage of a crematorium, train stations, hospitals and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
"I warned her about going to Wuhan when everyone else was trying to leave," said her friend and fellow lawyer, Li Dawei, in published remarks.
"She is a staunch Christian and said it was God's will — she had to do this and tell everyone the truth."
ZHANG'S HUNGER STRIKE
Detained in mid-May, she went on a hunger strike in late June, according to court documents. Her lawyers reportedly told the court that police strapped her hands and force-fed her with a tube. By December, she suffered headaches, giddiness, stomach ache, low blood pressure, and a throat infection, according to people familiar with the case.
Officials reportedly denied requests to the court to release Zhang on bail before the trial and Livestream online.
Other independent or 'citizen-journalists' who have disappeared in China without explanation include Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi, and Li Zehua. While there has been no news of Fang, Li re-emerged in a YouTube video in April saying he was forcibly quarantined.
Although released, Chen is under surveillance and has not spoken publicly, Reuters news agency quoted a friend as saying.
At the start of the coronavirus outbreak, local authorities reprimanded several Wuhan doctors for "rumor-mongering" after alerting friends on social media. The best known of the doctors, Li Wenliang, later succumbed to COVID-19, several sources said.