Trial Of Chinese Activist To Begin A Chinese human rights activist is scheduled to go on trial Wednesday after being imprisoned for more than 13 months. Huang Qi tried to help parents of children who died in school collapses during last year's Sichuan earthquake. He is charged with "illegal possession of state secrets." Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch's Asia advocacy director, offers her insight.

Trial Of Chinese Activist To Begin

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Melissa Block. After being imprisoned for more than 13 months, Chinese human rights activist Huang Qi is to go on trial tomorrow behind closed doors. Huang Qi was seized by Chinese authorities soon after the Sichuan earthquake last year. He had been trying to help parents of children who died when their middle school collapsed. Huang Qi was charged with illegal possession of state secrets. The group Human Rights Watch is calling for Huang Qi's immediate release. And the group's Asia advocacy director, Sophie Richardson, joins us to talk about the case. Sophie, welcome.

Ms. SOPHIE RICHARDSON (Advocacy Director, Asia, Human Rights Watch): Thank you.

BLOCK: This charge, possession of state secrets, we should explain, can mean just about anything?

Ms. RICHARDSON: Yeah, it means whatever the Chinese government wants it to mean whenever it wants it to mean that. It's an incredibly elastic charge that we've seen used with increasing frequency over the last couple of years against government critics.

BLOCK: And in the case Huang Qi what he was actually doing was publicizing parents' demands for an investigation into shoddy school construction of the schools that collapsed, accountability, compensation for the parents.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Yeah, it's hard by any reasonable stretch to describe what Huang has been doing as somehow a threat to national security. And in fact, one of the great ironies is that in April, the Chinese government released its new National Human Rights action plan in which it actually called for a greater investigation into, and discussion of, the deaths surrounding the earthquake. So the prosecution of Huang Qi for this is particularly ironic.

BLOCK: We mentioned that this trial will be held behind closed doors. What do you expect to happen in that trial?

Ms. RICHARDSON: Well, what we would like to see happen, of course, is the charges to be dropped and the trial to be canceled. But charges on state secrets are very difficult to reverse. I think we will probably see him get at least the minimum penalty, which is five years in prison. I don't think they would impose, in these circumstances, the maximum penalty which is death.

BLOCK: In that proceeding tomorrow, what happens? What are his rights as a defendant?

Ms. RICHARDSON: He has almost none. I mean, it's worth noting that the contents of the state secrets law is itself a state secret. And you can imagine sort of the downstream problems. You don't have access to the counsel of your choosing without the prosecution's consent. You can't necessarily have your lawyer, your family or any other advocates attend the trial. You don't even have the right to access, to the evidence that's been presented against you.

BLOCK: Huang Qi is said to be in poor health. He has tumors in his stomach and chest, an irregular heartbeat. Our Beijing correspondent Anthony Kuhn reached Huang Qi's wife, Zeng Li, by telephone today. And let's listen to a little bit of what she told him.

Ms. ZENG LI: (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: That's Huang Qi's wife there. And she's saying that her husband has had no treatment for his aliments. She says she took medicine to the jail but the guards wouldn't give it to him, and that this has made his health condition even worse. Sophie, what are you hearing about Huang Qi's health?

Ms. RICHARDSON: Similar stories, that he also suffers from hepatitis B and has been denied access to treatment for that. These are very common problems, particularly for political prisoners in China, that they have no access to medical care. And it's particularly worrisome given how endemic the use of torture also is in Chinese prisons. We suspect he may have been ill-treated and not been able to get any sort of treatment for that as well.

BLOCK: Huang Qi had also been detained for five years, from 2000 to 2005, and was beaten during that time in detention.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Yes, yes he was.

BLOCK: There is - we should say - another trial scheduled next week. Another prominent activist, Tom Zorin(ph) also over the same issue of school collapse, which has become so volatile over the last year.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Yeah, the charges against him are slightly different. He's been charged with incitement to state subversion, meaning he's trying to somehow overthrow the government. Tom's activities involve collecting names of children and trying to put together a list of the kids who died in the earthquake - again, consistent with what the government has called for. But, his approach clearly isn't under the government's control and that's why they don't like it.

BLOCK: These cases, we should say, Sophie, are in the context of what seems to be an extensive crackdown right now on dissidents - and not just dissidents, but the lawyers who represent those dissidents in China.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Yeah, it's not just the case that we've seen the disbarment of only 50 civil rights or human rights lawyers in China, but, just about 10 days ago, an organization that provides legal aid was closed down. And last week, the director of that program was detained. We haven't yet heard what the charges against him are going to be. I think it's very clear that the Chinese government is happy enough for developments in the legal field that serve particular commercial purposes, but not happy to see developments or the involvement of lawyers who are going to challenge the government over things like, the freedom of expression, the freedom of religion or simply access to government information.

BLOCK: Sophie Richardson with Human Rights Watch, thanks for coming in.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Thank you.

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