Chinese Pastor Shaojie Zhang Sentenced to 12 Years; Daughter Escaped to the U.S.
A Mix of China’s Immature Legal System, Land Disputes, Personal Retaliation, and Persecution
07/15/2014 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern)— On July 4, 2014, the state-sanctioned Nanle County church pastor, Shaojie Zhang, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in China, charged with “fraud” and “gathering a crowd to disturb public order.” His daughter, Huixin (Yunyun) Zhang, together with her husband and son, escaped China to the U.S. on July 14, with the help from ChinaAid. After the Nanle County case raised international attention, the Nanle County government claimed that it had nothing to do with religious persecution. International Christian Concern (ICC) investigated and found three questions for people concerned for Pastor Zhang to consider:
If the whole issue started with land disputes; why do the charges against Pastor Zhang have nothing to do with land disputes?
The Nanle County Christian Church (NCCC) has been battling local government authorities over a plot of land, to which the Nanle church refused to relinquish its legally-acquired rights. In China, “land disputes are common conflicts between Chinese citizens and local government that often result in public riots,” a local contact told ICC during an interview, “as local officials may seize land forcibly and sell it to property developers at an enormous profit.”
Pastor Zhang and Christians of Nanle Church decided to go to Beijing to petition for the land, but were forcibly repatriated by the local government. This is a common practice for local government officials interested in protecting their political careers. After being repatriated, Pastor Zhang and over twenty other Christians were suddenly detained in November 2013. Following a seven-month detainment, Pastor Zhang was tried in April 2014, and charged with “fraud” and “gathering a crowd to disturb public order.” His judgment included a fine of 100,000 Yuan (approximately $16,112 USD). This charge surprisingly has nothing to do with land disputes.
“He who has a mind to beat his dog will easily find a stick,” said local Christians in Nanle County. “The government wants to get rid of Pastor Zhang and they can easily find excuses.”
Where is the witness for the charge of “fraud”?
On the charge of fraud, the prosecutor failed to produce a witness against Pastor Zhang. ChinaAid indicates that the alleged victim, Ms. Li Cairen, was detained by local police and held in custody in a “black jail,” an “unofficial” location for a detention that ignores any prescribed legal means. She was then restricted from appearing in court to testify. Subsequently, Pastor Zhang’s defense lawyers were denied the opportunity to question Ms. Li regarding the accusation and her testimony.
ICC also learned that most of the Christians who were detained in last November have been released, except for Pastor Zhang and two other NCCC members. Surprisingly, one of these detainees is the prohibited witness, Ms. Li Cairen.
Were the proper legal procedures followed?
Pastor Zhang’s defense lawyers contest that Nanle County authorities, including the court that sentenced Pastor Zhang, have handled this case in a way that “continuously violated Chinese criminal procedure law.” ChinaAid reports that “there have been several accounts of human rights lawyers and international media reporters being beaten, harassed and even been placed under administrative detention by Chinese authorities.” Pastor Zhang’s original defense lawyers, Liu Weiguo and Zhao Yonglin, were eventually dismissed from the case under pressure from government authorities. Yue Lina, one of the Christians from Nanle Church, was forced into a mental hospital by local authorities.
Pastor Zhang’s family has decided to bring an appeal to Puyang City, hoping for a better result in a higher court than at the county level. ICC intends to closely follow this case, and urges the local authorities of Nanle county and Puyang City to be transparent about the legal proceeding and to treat the detained pastor and Christians well.
ICC’s Advocacy Director, Isaac Six, said, “We were incredibly disturbed to hear of the absurd 12-year sentence handed down to Pastor Zhang Shaojie last week. Pastor Zhang is an innocent man whose only crime was to shepherd a thriving community of Christians who had worshipped peacefully in Nanle County for years. The Chinese government has unceasingly harassed Pastor Zhang’s church members, hired thugs to intimidate his defense counsel, and attempted to suppress media coverage of his case. Sadly, Pastor Zhang’s case is not isolated. He now joins a growing list of imprisoned or detained Christian leaders that includes names like Alimujiang Yimti, Gao Zhisheng, and Bishop Thaddeus Ma. Today, we call on the government of China in the strongest possible terms to quickly right this egregious wrong and to immediately release Pastor Zhang as well as all other prisoners of faith or conscience.”
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