Chinese diplomatic officials in Geneva reacted strongly to the call by UN officials for the release of citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, jailed for her coverage of the country’s Covid-19 response.
On Friday, OHCHR spokeswoman Marta Hurtado voiced alarm at reports that the 38-year-old’s health was deteriorating rapidly, and that her life was at serious risk from a hunger strike in detention.
“We call on the Chinese authorities to consider Zhang’s immediate and unconditional release, at the very least, on humanitarian grounds, and to make urgent life-saving medical care available, respecting both her will and her dignity,” Hurtado said in a statement.
China immediately disputed the UN statement, and on Saturday, Chinese mission spokesman Liu Yuyin insisted that “China is a country under the rule of law, and everyone is equal before the law”.
He decried that the UN rights office in Zhang’s case had turned “a blind eye to information provided by China through normal channels”, and instead, “based on hearsay, chose to interfere in China’s judicial sovereignty”.
Zhang, a former lawyer, travelled to Wuhan in February 2020 to report on the chaos at the pandemic’s epicentre, questioning the authorities’ handling of the outbreak in her smartphone videos.
She was detained in May 2020 and sentenced in December to four years in jail for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – a charge routinely used to suppress dissent.
She has conducted several hunger strikes to protest against her conviction, sentencing and imprisonment, and her family recently warned that she had become severely underweight and “may not live for much longer”.
Hurtado said that the UN rights office had repeatedly raised concerns over Zhang’s case with the Chinese authorities since her arrest last year.
It had sought “clarification on the criminal proceedings taken against her as a consequence of what appear to have been her legitimate journalistic activities”, she said.
China has revelled in its success in keeping domestic Covid-19 infections down to a trickle of sporadic outbreaks.
But there has been little patience with those who threaten the official version of events by raising questions about the government’s early handling of the Wuhan outbreak.
Zhang is among a group of four citizen journalists – along with Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua – detained after reporting from Wuhan. (Source: CNA)