Closed-door hearings of 2 Chinese activists highlight China's contentious rule of law

Two closed-door hearings of prominent Chinese activists Friday drew sharp criticism for chilling freedom of expression as Chinese authorities tighten oversight of public speech.

Veteran journalist Gao Yu, 70, went on trial Friday in closed-door proceedings in Beijing on accusations of leaking state secrets. Police and plainclothes agents blocked journalists from accessing the Beijing No. 3 People's Intermediate Court, but confirmed proceedings were underway.

Across the country, in the tumultuous Xinjiang region, a court delivered a verdict during a sealed jailhouse hearing to uphold the separatism conviction and life sentence for Ilham Tohti, a noted scholar from China's Muslim Uighur minority who frequently criticized the government while advocating ethnic pride and greater economic opportunity.

Both proceedings highlight tensions between China's vision of rule of law, a top priority of President Xi Jinping, and Western notions of judicial fairness.

"If Gao Yu and Ilham Tohti were to receive genuinely fair hearings, the charges against them would be dismissed as blatant political persecution," William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

Gao is one of the best-known intellectuals to have been imprisoned for supporting the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests. She was detained again in April for illegally obtaining a Communist Party document and providing it to an overseas website for publication, according to previous state media reports.

State media did not identify the document, but it appeared to refer to a strategy paper — known as Document No. 9 — that reportedly argued for aggressive curbs on the spread of western democracy, universal values, civil society, freedom of press and other ideological concepts the party believed threatened its legitimacy.

Human rights activists have said Gao's case raises concerns that the authorities are using state secrets charges to silence government critics.

Ilham Tohti was accused of fomenting unrest in Xinjiang, while his supporters portray him as a moderate intent on mediating conflicts between the region's native Uighurs and China's ethnic Han majority. Those conflicts have erupted in violence that has cost about 400 lives in the last 20 months and which Beijing maintains is fueled by terrorists and Islamist insurgents trained outside China.

The Xinjiang High Court rejection of the scholar's appeal Friday was delivered at a hearing held inside the Urumqi detention center, in violation of normal judicial procedure, his two lawyers said. The hearing was set at short notice on a date in which both lawyers were unable to attend, Liu Xiaoyuan and Li Fangping said.

During Ilham Tohti's closed-door trial in September, prosecutors presented evidence including a video of one of his lectures at a Beijing university in which he said Xinjiang belonged to Uighurs not Hans, state media reported at the time. They also said the scholar publicized a fake poll showing that 12 percent of Uighurs favored separating from China, the reports said.

His harsh sentence was the most severe in a decade handed down in China for illegal political speech and drew condemnation from the U.S. and the European Union.

"The upholding of (Ilham) Tohti's life sentence constitutes a gross travesty of justice and a dark day for Chinese letters," said Dominic Moran of the New York-based free speech and literature advocacy group PEN American Center.


Ian Mader, Louise Watt, Aritz Parra and news assistant Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed.