The nephew of exiled Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng was tried on Friday and sentenced to three years and three months in prison on charges related to a clash with local officials in April, according to activist and family friend Hu Jia. Lawyers and human-rights activists say Chen’s family was given just a few hours’ notice of the trial of Chen Kegui, 32. His relatives complained that the lawyers they chose to represent Chen Kegui were rejected by the court, giving them little hope for a fair trial.
Chen Guangcheng, a blind legal activist who campaigned against forced abortions, became the subject of international attention in April after he escaped arbitrary and often violent house arrest. With the help of fellow activists he traveled to Beijing and was taken in by the U.S. embassy. China demanded his return, provoking a standoff just as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arrived in the Chinese capital for prescheduled talks. After tortuous negotiations, Chen was allowed to leave China for the U.S with his wife and two children. In the U.S. he’s maintained a high profile, giving interviews and talks and being named “Rebel of the Year” by GQ magazine.
As Chen was preparing to leave China he was told that the central government would investigate the years of abuse he and his family faced at the hands of local officials in eastern Shandong province. But now it appears Chen’s own kin will be the only person to face punishment. On April 27, after news emerged that Chen Guangcheng had escaped the rings of guards patrolling his village of Dongshigu, two dozen men stormed the house of his brother Chen Guangfu. Chen Guangfu’s son Kegui used a kitchen knife to slash at the men. He was arrested days later on suspicion of homicide, but he was ultimately charged with intentional infliction of injury.
Two human-rights lawyers appointed by his family, Si Weijiang and Ding Xikui, were blocked from representing Chen Kegui. Instead two lawyers from the local legal-aid association were appointed by the Yinan County Court. His family argued that the two came from the same firms that supplied the court-appointed lawyers who represented Chen Guangcheng in 2006 after his chosen attorneys were detained by police. Chen Guangcheng was tried and convicted of “intentionally damaging property and gathering crowds to disturb transport order” and sentenced to four years in prison.
“They completely failed to defend Chen Guangcheng’s rights during the trial and made no attempt to conceal their compliance with all kinds of procedural violations by the prosecution and the court,” Chen Kegui’s parents and wife said in a letter translated by Human Rights in China, an NGO. “Chen Kegui’s case will only follow suit.” On Friday, Chen Kegui’s father was blocked from attending the trial on grounds that he was a witness and his mother was also blocked on the assertion that she too was a suspect, said Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University and a longtime friend and adviser to the Chen family. “This is the ultimate example of judicial farce in China, not a happy example of how human rights will be protected by China’s new leadership!” Cohen wrote in an e-mail. “The ‘trial’ was held in ways guaranteed to prevent any possible defense or any possible observer to attend.”
Chen’s supporters said before the trial that a conviction was inevitable. “Neither the process nor the results will be fair in this trial,” says Teng Biao, a lawyer who has helped the Chen family. “According to what actually happened, this should be a case of self-defense, and he should be found not guilty. But I don’t think that will happen.”
Coming shortly after the handover of China’s top leadership positions, Chen’s trial also offers clues as to whether new Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping will take a different approach to sensitive rights cases. So far all indications are that he will follow the same path as that of his predecessors. “Chen Kegui’s trial is a good opportunity for the new leadership to learn from previous mistakes and break with years of contempt for the law in the case of Chen Guangcheng and his family,” said Maya Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. “So far we haven’t seen that the new leadership wants to do that.”
— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing