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Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan jailed for 'provoking trouble' with Wuhan reporting

Zhang's lawyer said his client was “on long-term hunger strike” and being force-fed.
Image: A pro-democracy activist holds placards with the picture of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan outside the Chinese central government's liaison office, in Hong Kong
A pro-democracy activist holds placards with a picture of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan outside the Chinese central government's liaison office in Hong Kong on Monday. Kin Cheung / AP

BEIJING — A Chinese court sentenced a citizen journalist who reported from Wuhan, the city where the Covid-19 pandemic is believed to have started, to four years in jail, her lawyer has confirmed.

The woman, Zhang Zhan, 37, was one of several citizen journalists whose firsthand accounts of the first emergence of the virus nearly a year ago painted a more dire picture of the early outbreak than the government's official narrative.

Zhang, a former lawyer, arrived in Wuhan in early February from her home in Shanghai to document how the city was holding up against the deadly new virus in a series of online posts. Some of her posts criticized the Chinese government's response.

Zhang was detained in May and accused of spreading false information, giving interviews to foreign media, disrupting social order and attacking the government.

Image: Poster of Zhang Zhan
A car follows a funeral caravan with a poster of Zhang Zhan, a Chinese citizen journalist who criticized the Chinese government's handling of the coronavirus crisis and is being held in a Shanghai prison.Allen J. Schaben / Getty Images file

She was convicted Monday of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," Zhang's lawyer, Zhang Keke, who is not related, said Monday. Zhang did not speak or show any reaction to the court decision, her lawyer said, adding that she did not answer when asked whether she wanted to appeal her sentence.

Before the sentencing hearing, Zhang Keke said, his client went "on long-term hunger strike" in detention and was being force-fed.

He said Zhang Zhan suffered from dizziness and headaches and was "physically fragile."

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"When I met her days ago, her hands were tied to the waist and a nasogastric tube was inserted in her nose," he said, adding that she has not pleaded guilty.

"She has a strong will," Zhang Keke said.

The human rights organization Amnesty International also sounded the alarm about Zhang's health and "risk of further torture and other ill-treatment" this month.

The U.N. human rights office tweeted Monday it was "deeply concerned" by Zhang's sentence, adding that it will continue calling for her release after having raised her case with authorities as an example of "excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to Covid-19."

China has been accused of covering up the initial outbreak and delaying its response, allowing the virus to spread globally. Beijing has denied all accusations, saying it acted swiftly to stop the virus, which has killed nearly 1.8 million people around the world.

Criticism of China's early handling of the crisis has been heavily censored inside the country, with whistleblowers silenced and state media hailing China's success. The country's health officials say they have recorded only 86,976 cases since the pandemic started, while there are more than 80 million cases worldwide.

In the early days of the outbreak, authorities reprimanded several Wuhan doctors for rumor-mongering after they tried to alert the public. The best-known of them, Li Wenliang, died of Covid-19 and became a national hero.

Several other citizen journalists who reported from Wuhan during the early days of the pandemic also appear to have been targeted.

Fang Bin, who shared videos from Wuhan's hospitals on YouTube, has been missing since February. Chen Qiushi, who disappeared in February after making a series of social media posts, is under close surveillance and has not spoken publicly, The South China Morning Post reported. Another citizen journalist who reported from Wuhan, Li Zehua, re-emerged in a YouTube video in April after having disappeared for almost two months to say he had been forcibly quarantined.

Eric Baculinao reported from Beijing; Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.