In a ruling reached last November but made public by one of the plaintiffs Monday, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Zhang’s detention since 2019 was “arbitrary”.
Tiananmen in Beijing. File photo: Wikimedia Commons.
The working group, made up of five independent experts who do not speak on behalf of the United Nations and whose opinions are not binding, called on China to “release Mr. Zhang immediately.”
It also demanded that Beijing provide him compensation and ensure a “full and independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding the arbitrary deprivation of liberty.”
Beijing has stepped up its crackdown on civil society since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, tightening restrictions on freedom of speech and detaining hundreds of activists and lawyers.
The working group pointed out that in its 30-year-history, it had found China to be in violation of its international rights obligations in over 1,000 cases, voicing concern that this “indicates a systemic problem with arbitrary detention” in the country.
Zhang himself had already been handed a two-year prison term in 2014 for “disrupting public order” after holding a banner in a crowded shopping area in Beijing, urging officials to disclose their assets as a check against corruption.
He was arrested again five years later, charged with “picking quarrels”, and “promoting terrorism, extremism, and inciting terrorism”, and is serving a 3.5-year sentence in Beijing.
The working group slammed the charges against the 63-year-old activist as “so vague and broad that they could be used to deprive individuals of their liberty without a specific legal basis.”
It said it had seen no information that would reasonably implicate Zhang in specific violent or criminal acts, noting that the prosecution’s main evidence against him during the trial had been his tweets criticising the camps in Xinjiang province housing Uyghur Muslims.
Rights groups say that at least one million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in “re-education camps” in China’s Xinjiang province, and face widespread rights abuses — allegations Beijing vehemently denies.
The experts said that they found no legitimate reason to deprive Zhang of liberty, since he had simply exercised his right to freedom of expression and association.
The experts also determined that Zhang’s trial, held more than a year after his arrest behind closed doors, did not meet international standards for independence and fairness.
And they voiced concern over the conditions of his detention “in an overcrowded prison, where the lights are kept on the whole day and he suffers poor nutrition and inhumane physical inspections.”
The working group said it had not relied on information provided by the Chinese government in the case, since authorities had missed the submission deadline by several months.
Instead, it said it had relied on detailed information provided by an unnamed source.
Geneva-based rights group UN Watch said Monday that it was one of the plaintiffs in the case, alongside Washington-based Citizen Power Initiatives for China.
UN Watch chief Hillel Neuer called in a statement on Beijing “to honour the UN ruling and to immediately release Mr. Zhang.”