Lawyer Xia Lin was sentenced to 12 years in jail on Thursday (Sept. 22), sending the latest chill through the much-battered legal community in China, which is suffering under a relentless two year crackdown that has seen hundreds of human rights lawyers arrested.
Xia Lin famously defended artist Ai Weiwei, fellow lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, and activist Guo Yushan, but was then arrested himself in 2014 and charged with “fraudulently obtaining 1.5 million US dollars,” charges he has strongly denied. A court in Beijing found him guilty of fraudulently obtaining less than half that amount today—but still gave him as harsh a sentence as it could muster.
Legal experts and human rights activists, both in China and abroad, denounced the heavy sentence, and questioned the plausibility of this accusation, which they said seems more aimed at smearing the name of Xia Lin than at punishing him for a real offense, as has been the case in other politically-charged trials.
William Nee, a researcher with Amnesty International, told Quartz that the sentence was “shockingly harsh,” and that it seems to be “really a smokescreen that hides the real intent of the government to crackdown on lawyers who are willing to take up political cases,” especially after most lawyers caught in last year’s crackdown were released or given mild sentences.
Xia’s sentence is a message to the lawyers who were not released, he said. “Those who have refused to cooperate and admit their guilt are still awaiting trial, and among them, Xia Lin is the first to be sentenced. Such a harsh sentence could be meant to send a message to those who have still refused to cooperate in spite of the enormous pressure that has been put on them an their families,” he said.
Last June, a group of Chinese legal scholars published a letter (link in Chinese) tearing into the accusations against Xia.
Xia was a former Tiananmen protestor in 1989, who said he decided to become a lawyer in the hope of bettering China through the application of rule of law. The Beijing court that convicted him today, instead, has once again shown that “rule of law” means that no dissent will be tolerated.