CSW has called on China to release Christian human rights defender and former lawyer Zhang Zhan, who has spent over 150 days in detention, amid fears for her health since she began a hunger strike to protest her arbitrary detention.
Zhang was detained on 14 May after posting videos and articles about the COVID-19 outbreak on Twitter and YouTube, both of which are blocked in China, and other social media platforms from early February.
A source, who must remain anonymous for security reasons,
told CSW: “In early February, when everyone in Wuhan tried to flee out
[sic], human rights defender Zhang Zhan travelled the opposite direction
towards Wuhan to report on the crisis. Her videos and articles were posted on
Twitter and YouTube, both of which are blocked in China, and other social media
platforms. She questioned whether the authorities' response to the epidemic
infringed on human rights. She spoke up for Dr Li Wenliang
and questioned whether the severity of the outbreak had been covered up. She
was deeply concerned about those ordinary, voiceless Wuhan citizens who face
destitution, having lost livelihoods in COVID-19.”
Zhang continued reporting on the crisis even after three other citizen journalists, Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua, disappeared one after another. She was taken away from her hotel room by Shanghai police in Wuhan on 14 May, and has been detained at the Pudong District Detention Centre in Shanghai ever since. She faces a charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. On 18 September, her case was sent to Pudong District Court.
Recent reports indicate that Zhang has been on hunger strike since the beginning of summer, with staff at the detention centre force-feeding her as she refused to eat or drink anything. She has refused to plead guilty to the charges against her. Zhang’s lawyer, Wen Yu, was able to meet her for the first time in detention on 18 September. After the meeting Wen reported that Zhang was still on a hunger strike and she had lost weight.
On 20 September the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers' Group issued a statement calling on the government to release Zhang. The group stated that everything Zhang had done was completely legal according to China's own law and that she was only sharing what she saw and heard in Wuhan. They also called on the Pudong District Court to start proceedings without delay, to dismiss the case and acquit Zhang immediately.
Zhang once worked as a lawyer, but her licence has been suspended due to her human rights activism. She was previously arrested in Shanghai in September 2019, and spent 60 days in detention for her support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. She suffered severe mistreatment during her previous detention, and was twice forced to be checked for mental health issues, for which she went on a four-day hunger strike. She also spent seven days in solitary confinement, during which her hands and feet were tied to the floor, making it impossible to go to the toilet. She was in poor health after her release.
Zhang once wrote: “If all that remains in life is fear, then all I can do is to fight fear repeatedly until I cross it. Because if not, all emotions outside of fear are masks. If I were to face God, I would pray sincerely for [the perpetrators] and ask Him to forgive their sins, not because I’m a moral person. Rather, it's that I have to do it.”
CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: “We call for Zhang Zhan’s immediate and unconditional release, and urge the Chinese government to ensure a safe environment for activists, lawyers and journalists to exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and the peaceful defence of human rights.”