A journalist advocacy group is calling for the release of 11 Chinese citizens who were detained after providing photos that offered a glimpse into the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to the Chinese-language edition of The Epoch Times.
The 11 are all adherents of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice that has been heavily persecuted by the communist regime for decades. They have been held in a Chinese detention center pending trial for more than a year since their arrest last July.
Beijing authorities initially accused them of “using a heretical religion to sabotage law enforcement,” a charge often leveled at the adherents as well as Chinese believers in other faiths, according to the adherents’ lawyers. The offense is punishable by lifetime imprisonment, according to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the regime’s top prosecution body.
The arrests took place in Beijing on July 19 last year, a day before the 21st anniversary of the regime’s persecution of Falun Gong.
Besides the detainees’ faith, what drew the authorities’ ire appeared to be the efforts to publicize photos and information during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak and lockdown restrictions in China.
Xie Yanyi, one of the defense lawyers involved in the case, said in an Aug. 23 open letter to authorities that an April indictment accused the detainees of “taking photos and uploading them to overseas websites between February and June 2020.” The indictment also accused the group of holding gatherings in their residences, according to Xie.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based group advocating for press freedom, said the 11 were indicted for sending material to The Epoch Times, citing a person familiar with the case.
“China needs to stop trying to prevent its citizens from reporting the news and publishing photographs about its COVID-19 restrictions,” Steven Butler, the group’s Asia program coordinator, said in an Aug. 24 statement.
“The 11 people arrested for sending photos and information to The Epoch Times should be released from jail immediately, with all charges dropped.”
An Epoch Times spokesperson expressed concern about the adherents’ safety.
“We call on the international community to condemn this violation of press freedom,” the spokesperson said.
Xu Na, one of the detained adherents, is a poet and freelance painter in her early 50s. She lost her husband to the persecution more than a decade ago, after both were arrested for their faith months ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, according to Minghui, a U.S.-based website dedicated to documenting the CCP’s campaign against Falun Gong.
Xu’s husband, a folk musician, was tortured to death less than two weeks into his detention at the age of 42; Xu wasn’t allowed to attend his funeral.
Liang Xiaojun, one of the lawyers representing Xu, previously noted that several others facing sentencing are still in their 20s.
“And all that for merely capturing the most common moments on Beijing streets during the pandemic. What kind of country is this!” Liang wrote in a Twitter post in April.
A judge has blocked Xu’s other lawyer, Xie, from defending her, despite his repeated negotiations with them, which he described as an “apparent abuse of power.”
“They are afraid of people telling the truth,” Xie said in Aug. 24 interview with The Epoch Times.
He called the charges “concocted.” Regardless of the detainees’ beliefs, it’s “within the legal boundary” for citizens to capture photos relating to the devastating outbreak and put them online, he said.
The Chinese regime has tightly controlled information relating to the pandemic in a bid to suppress any news unfavorable to it, such as accurate death toll figures, the effects of its strict lockdown policies, and information about the workings of the Wuhan lab at the center of the lab leak virus origin theory.
Chinese citizens who have sought to relay unfiltered information relating to the pandemic since its emergence in central China in late 2019 have faced punishment.
Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist in Wuhan, warned his medical peers about “SARS-like” cases in a social media app in December 2019, when the authorities were calling the disease an “unknown pneumonia.” He was reprimanded by police and later died of the virus himself.
Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan is currently serving a four-year sentence after reporting on the outbreak from Wuhan. Her weight has dropped to under 90 pounds as a result of a prolonged hunger strike in protest.
“The government has a responsibility to protect its people,” Xie said. “If you, as the government, didn’t disclose enough information to meet the public’s needs, how can you ban the citizens from collecting such information and sharing it around to protect themselves?”
Yi Ru contributed to this report.