China hands 4 year jail sentence to lawyer reporting on Covid in Wuhan

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Zhang Zhan, a lawyer turned citizen journalist, was handed a four-year jail sentence by a Chinese court for alerting public opinion, at the peak of the Covid 19 outbreak, about the situation in Wuhan, the epicentre of the infection.

The court in Shanghai’s district of Pudong accused 37-year old Zhang Zhan of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble".

The lawyer-turned-citizen-journalist was among the first few people who reported, on social media, about the Covid situation in Wuhan when on the ground information was very scarce.

Zhang arrived in Wuhan on 1 February from her home in Shanghai.

She gave firsthand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets, giving a different picture of the pandemic epicentre than the official narrative Beijing allowed.

Her short video clips uploaded to YouTube consist of interviews with residents, commentary and footage of a crematorium, train stations, hospitals, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Her lawyer, Ren Quanniu, said that they will appeal the court’s ruling.

"Ms Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech," he had said before the trial.

Criticism of China's early handling of the crisis has been censored, and whistle-blowers, such as doctors, warned.

The virus has spread worldwide to infect more than 80 million people and kill over 1.76 million, paralysing air travel as nations threw up barriers against it that have disrupted industries and livelihoods.

Beijing rhetoric

Chinese state media have credited success in reining in the virus to the leadership of President Xi Jinping.

Police enforced tight security outside the court where the trial opened seven months after Zhang's detention.

Foreign journalists were denied entry to the court "due to the epidemic", court security officials said.

Detained in mid-May, she went on a hunger strike in late June. Her lawyers told the court that police strapped her hands and force-fed her with a tube.

By December, she was suffering headaches, giddiness, stomach-ache, low blood pressure and a throat infection.

Her lawyer said that the court ignored his requests to release Zhang on bail before the trial as well as another request to livestream the trial.

Other citizen-journalists who had disappeared without explanation included Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua.

While there has been no news of Fang, Li re-emerged in a YouTube video in April to say he was forcibly quarantined, while Chen, although released, is under surveillance and has not spoken publicly.