Tough sentence fails to crush defiant Wei

China dissident trial: Pro-democracy activist stands firm as Peking court hands down a 14-year prison term for sedition
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The Independent Online
For 20 minutes yesterday, inside a heavily guarded Peking courtroom, China's leading pro-democracy dissident, Wei Jingsheng, rejected the charge that he had conspired "to subvert the Chinese government". But it took the three judges less than five hours to convict Mr Wei and sentence him to 14 years' imprisonment, after prosecution evidence that he had invested in a Chinese credit co-operative, planned art exhibitions and published articles in an attempt to "overthrow the dictatorship of the people and split the country".

Mr Wei's brother and sister were allowed to attend the proceedings but guards prevented the defendant from speaking to them. Since his detention on 1 April 1994, Mr Wei's family had been unable to establish his whereabouts. Wei Xiaotao said his 46-year-old brother looked thinner, but had waved and smiled in court. But the trial had to be suspended for nearly half an hour, he added, when the defendant suffered an attack of high blood pressure, information that will raise fears about the state of Mr Wei's health. No film footage was broadcast on the main evening television news coverage of Mr Wei's "crimes", but photographs released by the government news agency showed an expressionless figure sitting in a chair in the courtroom.

Mr Wei denied the accusations in a vigorous 10-point defence, delivered seated, in which he said "all my activities respected the Chinese law". His two lawyers argued that evidence had been extracted from old letters and articles, quoted out of context. Extremely painfully for Mr Wei , the only prosecution witness was his former close assistant, Tong Yi, sentenced last year without trial to two-and-a-half years "re-education through labour". She was certainly put under immense pressure to testify.

The harsh sentence will act as a reminder to Chinese people that the government still refuses to tolerate any pressure for political change. Mr Wei is the most prominent symbol of China's stifled pro-democracy movement. He was a leading figure in the Democracy Wall protests of the late Seventies, and in 1979 was sentenced to 15 years after demanding a "Fifth Modernisation" - democracy. When he was released on parole in September 1993 as part of China's campaign to win the 2000 Olympics for Peking, he immediately resumed his calls for political reform and greater human rights, as well as trying to raise money for the families of those killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989.

International condemnation of Mr Wei's sentence was swift yesterday. A British embassy official expressed "shock and dismay". The US, Germany and Australia were among other countries to protest against the verdict. Analysts in Peking commented that the trial has coincided with renewed rumours about the health of China's 91-year-old patriarch, Deng Xiaoping, and that Mr Wei's conviction has confirmed the tough line on dissidents ahead of the transitional period.

With Peking blanketed by the first snow of winter, the No 1 Intermediate People's Court was ringed by soldiers and plainclothes public security officials from early morning yesterday. Despite earlier government assertions that the trial would be "open", foreign reporters and onlookers were barred from getting close to the court compound, and only hand-picked Chinese were allowed to observe proceedings.

The Chinese government case against Mr Wei included extraordinary accusations about the dissident's alleged fund-raising activities. Prosecutors charged that he had purchased a 12 per cent stake in a Chinese credit co-operative as part of plans to create a funding institution for pro-democracy activities. Further money "for his subversive cause" was to be raised through art exhibitions. According to Chinese state television, Mr Wei had also published articles in the foreign media attacking the Chinese government, asked foreigners for "hundreds of thousands of dollars", and consorted with other dissidents while out on parole, including Wang Dan, one of the June 1989 student leaders. "He exchanged signals with anti-China organisations abroad to overthrow the dictatorship of the people and split the country," prosecutors said.

Mr Wei gave a very different interpretation of events. He said his efforts to raise money to help Tiananmen massacre victims had been "from a humanitarian point of view and was not subversive", according to his brother's report of the trial. As for his articles, Mr Wei was reported to have said: "My articles were faxed abroad with the government's permission. and cannot serve as proof of the crimes of which I am accused."

During his six months of freedom between September 1993 and April 1994, Mr Wei was adamant he would never leave China, even though other dissidents have been granted asylum abroad.

In sentencing Mr Wei, the judges also stripped him of his political rights for three years, a common procedure with Chinese dissidents and one which can create problems for their families.