By T. Kumar, Amnesty International USA’s International Advocacy Director
Freedom of expression is under constant attack in China. But the recent sentence of prominent journalist, Gao Yu is not just another dissident being silenced. 71-year-old Gao Yu has been speaking out for nearly 30 years. She was detained without charge or trial for 15 months after the June 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. Upon release in 1990, she continued to work as a freelance journalist.
In the fall of 1993, Gao Yu was due to leave China to take up a position as a visiting scholar at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. However, two days before she was due to leave, she was arrested and charged with “disclosing important state secrets”. More than a year after the arrest, she was sentenced to six years in prison in a closed trial without legal representation. According to the court verdict, the so-called “state secrets” were allegedly divulged in four articles she wrote for two Hong Kong publications. They reportedly concerned structural reforms within the Chinese Communist Party and civil service system, and other political issues. The court verdict did not indicate that the alleged “state secrets” concerned matters of national security.
In a statement to the court, Gao Yu said:
“This sentence can devastate my health but not my spirits. During my one year in prison my condition has deteriorated. Every day I have to take large doses of medicine. The state of the illness has caused edema and my calves are blue and swollen. Before I step through the prison gates with my ruined body, I would like to say that I believe that history will prove my innocence…”
Gao Yu was awarded the World Association of Newspapers Golden Pen of Freedom in 1995 and the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize in May 1997. She was released on medical parole in early 1999 and continued to be an outspoken campaigner for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In April 2014, she failed to turn up to an event to commemorate the crackdown. State media later confirmed that she was detained by the authorities and was accused of sharing a Communist Party ideological paper known as Document No. 9. Freedom of the press and freedom of thought all come under severe attack in the paper. A few weeks after she was detained, China’s state television, CCTV, broadcast her confession. However, her lawyers said the confession was obtained illegally, since she felt threatened and was under intense psychological pressure.
Less than two months ago on April 17th, Gao Yu was found guilty by a court in Beijing of the spurious charge of “disclosing state secrets” and she was sentenced to seven years in prison. Her trial in November was held behind closed doors. She is a victim of vaguely worded and arbitrary state-secret laws that are used against activists as part of the authorities’ attack on freedom of expression. Gao Yu is a prisoner of conscience, solely imprisoned for challenging the views of the government.