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Jailed for COVID Reporting, Zhang Zhan 'May Not Survive'

Family of Chinese citizen journalist say she's near death behind bars after hunger strike
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 28, 2020 6:21 AM CST
Updated Nov 5, 2021 9:48 AM CDT
Citizen Journo Accused of 'Picking Quarrels' Gets 4 Years
A pro-democracy activist holds a placard with a picture of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan outside the Chinese central government's liaison office in Hong Kong on Monday.   (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

(Newser) Update: Hints that things had deteriorated for the Chinese citizen journalist put in prison for reporting on the coronavirus in Wuhan in early 2020 came over the summer. Now, more sobering news: Zhang Zhan's family says she is not far from dying after going on a hunger strike behind bars, reports the Guardian. "She may not survive the coming cold winter," a Twitter account said to belong to her brother tweeted Saturday. It notes Zhang now weighs less than 90 pounds. Reporters Without Borders says she can't walk or hold her head up without assistance, and an Amnesty International campaigner concurs Zhang is "at grave risk of dying," per a statement demanding her release. Her legal team has no info on her current condition. Our original story from December 2020 follows:

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Trying to keep a tight rein on news about COVID within its borders, the Chinese government has detained citizen journalists who've tried to push back on its propaganda regarding the virus. Now, what's believed to be the first sentencing of its kind: that of Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer who found out Monday she'll be spending four years behind bars for documenting how the coronavirus was ravaging Wuhan earlier this year, the New York Times reports. Zhang heard her fate in the Pudong New District People's Court in Shanghai after a trial that lasted less than three hours, in which she was convicted for the charge of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble."

The South China Morning Post notes the offense, which is often used by police to target dissenters, carries a maximum sentence of five years. According to her indictment, Zhang had been detained twice before in 2019 on that charge, per CNN. The 37-year-old headed from Shanghai to Wuhan in early February and spent three-plus months there showing crowded hospitals and deserted storefronts via her social media accounts, including Twitter and YouTube, which are banned in China. She abruptly vanished in May, and it was discovered she'd been arrested and brought back to Shanghai.

Zhang's lawyers say she went on a hunger strike to protest her detention; they add that she was force-fed by authorities using a feeding tube and that her hands were restrained so she couldn't remove it. One of her attorneys, who notes she's lost a lot of weight and "may not survive," per CBS News, says she showed up in a wheelchair to her trial. Supporters, meanwhile, say they were denied access to the proceedings. "What was Zhang Zhan's crime?" a Chinese human rights lawyer asks the Times, deeming her experience "extremely cruel suppression." "She just went to Wuhan, saw some things, talked about them. That's it." (Read more China stories.)

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