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China sentences early COVID whistleblower to 4 years in jail for exposing truth about the virus

A Chinese court on Monday handed down a four-year jail sentence to a citizen-journalist who raised alarms about the coronavirus outbreak from its epicenter in Wuhan last year.

What are the details?

Zhang Zhan, 37, was one of several citizen-journalists in the country to offer firsthand accounts of the outbreak, which portrayed crowded hospitals and empty streets and illustrated to the world that the situation in Wuhan was far worse than the communist government was letting on.

Zhang arrived in Wuhan in early February to document the city’s fight against the deadly new virus and posted her findings online, some of which were critical of the Chinese government, Reuters reported. Her posts on YouTube reportedly “consist[ed] of interviews with residents, commentary and footage of a crematorium, train stations, hospitals and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

She was arrested in May on allegations of spreading false information, granting interviews to foreign media, disrupting social order, and criticizing the government, according to NBC News.

Her lawyers claimed in court, according to Reuters, that police “strapped her hands and force-fed her with a tube” and that by December “she was suffering headaches, giddiness, stomach ache, low blood pressure and a throat infection.”

On Monday, the Pudong New Area People’s Court in Shanghai sentenced her to four years in jail for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” one of her lawyers confirmed to the news agency, adding, “We will probably appeal.”

“I don’t understand. All she did was say a few true words, and for that she got four years,” Zhang’s mother, who was present at the trial with her husband, said.

What else?

Humanitarian critics have sounded the alarm over China’s treatment and subsequent punishment of Zhang.

“We are deeply concerned by the 4-year prison sentence imposed on citizen journalist Zhang Zhan,” the UN Human Rights office tweeted. “We raised her case with the authorities throughout 2020 as an example of the excessive clampdown on freedom of expression linked to [COVID-19] & continue to call for her release.”

Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, blasted the timing of the sentencing, suggesting Chinese authorities waited until the holiday season to avoid attention and scrutiny from the West.

“Beijing’s selection of the sleepy period between Christmas and New Year’s suggests even it is embarrassed to sentence citizen-journalist Zhang Zhan to four years in prison for having chronicled the uncensored version of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan,” he said.

Anything else?

Chinese authorities worked hard to cover up the dangers of the virus during the early days of the outbreak, censuring and detaining a number of doctors and journalists in Wuhan.

A study released in March found that if interventions in China has been “conducted one week, two weeks, or three weeks earlier, cases could have been reduced by 66 percent, 86 percent and 95 percent respectively — significantly limiting the geographical spread of the disease.”

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