Chinese anti-censorship activist Zhen Jianghua has been unable to meet with a lawyer of his choice, despite a group of supporters saying that his trial is expected to begin soon.

Before he was detained in September, 32-year-old Zhen was the key organiser behind Human Rights Campaign in China. The non-profit organisation published information about – and advocated for – human rights activists across the country. He also founded, a website which worked against internet censorship and provided technical advice to help people circumvent internet restrictions.

File photo: Twitter/Xiaowaves.

Zhen is suspected of “inciting subversion of state power.” He was being held under “residential surveillance in a designated location” – a form of secret detention – but has since been moved to a detention centre in Zhuhai.

An activist who declined to give his name from the “Southern Idiot Concern Group,” a group of Zhen’s friends set up to support him after he was detained, said that Zhen currently has no lawyer as he has refused to appoint one approved by the authorities.

“He has not been able to see lawyers he appointed this whole time,” he told HKFP. “The lawyers went to see him a few times but none of them were able to – he must have appointed four lawyers in total.”

The group learned a few weeks ago that a lawyer who was approved by the authorities met with Zhen but, as Zhen did not give his consent to be represented by him, the lawyer was not able to see his case file.

However, the lawyer told Zhen’s family that his trial may start at the end of July or the beginning of August.

Zhen also asked the lawyer to tell his family to pack his things and return his rental home in Zhuhai.

“I guess he didn’t want his friends and family to keep having to pay the rent,” the friend said.

He added that the NGO led by Zhen was no longer able to operate.

“Human Rights Campaign in China barely continued to run at the beginning of Jianghua’s detention, but around the beginning of this year the website was attacked, and was unable to be updated,” he said.

“There was a short time when they built another site, but then the friends involved were summoned by police and questioned, and the operations stopped altogether over safety considerations.”

Lawyers dismissed

Zhen’s lawyers Ren Quanniu and Wen Yu were told by police in April that they had been dismissed by their client.

See also: How China’s multi-pronged crackdown on dissent took aim at citizen journalists and rights defence websites

Ren told HKFP that, throughout his detention, Zhen has been unable to meet with lawyers that he appointed. He said his repeated attempts to see Zhen were rebuffed by police who claimed that he would hamper their investigation.

“I suspect that the dismissal does not reflect Zhen Jianghua’s real wishes – I made a request to see him to confirm, but the Zhuhai police did not give me any response,” Ren said.

“According to the information I have, I believe that the charges against Zhen Jianghua are invalid, [his actions] fit within the boundaries of civilians’ right to speech, they pose no serious harm and should not be treated as a crime,” he added.

A photo posted by a supporter as part of a campaign to support Zhen. Photo: Twitter/Southern Idiot Concern Group.

HKFP has reached out to the procuratorate in Zhuhai for comment.

A staff member who picked up the phone at the Zhuhai Detention Centre said: “[W]e don’t have anyone under that name.”

According to rights NGO Amnesty International, Zhen’s family has been under police pressure not to speak with his lawyers or discuss his case publicly.

He also voiced support for Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests and would regularly attend the annual June 4 Tiananmen massacre commemorations in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park. He was previously detained after travelling to the “democracy village” of Wukan, which was the site of widespread protests against illegal land grabs by the local government in 2016.

Catherine Lai

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.