A Chinese court on Monday sentenced a former lawyer who reported on the early stage of the coronavirus outbreak to four years in prison on charges of “picking fights and provoking trouble,” one of her lawyers said. The Pudong New Area People’s Court in the financial hub of Shanghai gave the sentence to Zhang Zhan following accusations she spread false information, gave interviews to foreign media, disrupted public order and “maliciously manipulated” the outbreak.
Lawyer Zhang Keke confirmed the sentence but said it was “inconvenient” to provide details – usually an indication that the court has issued a partial gag order. He said the court didn’t ask Zhang whether she would appeal, nor did she indicate whether she would.
Zhang, 37, traveled to Wuhan in February and posted on various social media platforms about the outbreak that is believed to have emerged in the central Chinese city late last year.
She was arrested in May amid tough nationwide measures aimed at curbing the outbreak and heavy censorship to deflect criticism of the government’s initial response. Zhang reportedly went on a prolonged hunger strike while in detention, prompting authorities to forcibly feed her, and is said to be in poor health.
Earlier this month, an attorney flor Zhang who wished to remain anonymous told CBS News Zhang was restrained 24 hours a day with a belt around her waist and both hands tied to prevent her from pulling out a feeding tube.
The lawyer, who visited her at least twice, said she was experiencing headaches, dizziness and stomach and mouth pain due to the insertion of the gastric tube for forced feeding, and that Zhang told him that, “every day is torture.”
Zhang is among several citizen journalists whose work offered some of the only glimpses to the outside world of what was going on in Wuhan in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic — and who were subsequently detained by the Chinese government.
Citizen journalist Chen Qiushi went missing in February at about the same time as Li Zehua and Wuhan resident Fang Bin, both of whom also reported on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Li Zehua was released in April.
China has been accused of covering up the initial outbreak and delaying the release of crucial information, enabling the virus to spread and contributing to the pandemic that has sickened more than 80 million people worldwide and killed almost 1.8 million. Beijing vigorously denies the accusations, saying it took swift action that bought time for the rest of the world to prepare.
China’s ruling Communist Party tightly controls the media and seeks to block dissemination of information it hasn’t approved for release.
In the early days of the outbreak, authorities reprimanded several Wuhan doctors for “rumor-mongering” after they alerted friends on social media. The best known of the doctors, Li Wenliang, later succumbed to COVID-19.