US and EU criticize China for imprisoning citizen journalists who reported COVID-19

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Police vehicles are seen outside a Shanghai court

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BRUSSELS / WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The European Union and the United States on Tuesday criticized the detention of a citizen journalist in China for covering the early outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan.

A Chinese court on Monday imposed a four-year prison sentence on Zhang Zhan, who reported at the height of the crisis in the city where the coronavirus first emerged. Her lawyer said Zhang was arrested for “quarrels and trouble”.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that he strongly condemned Zhang’s conviction and called for her immediate and unconditional release. He accused the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of restricting and manipulating information about the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.

“Their hasty process of denying foreign observers access shows how fearful the CCP is of Chinese citizens telling the truth,” said Pompeo, adding that the United States will always support Chinese citizens’ right to themselves free to express.

Relations between the US and China have fallen to their worst levels in decades as the world’s two largest economies struggle with issues like the coronavirus outbreak, Beijing’s Hong Kong national security law, trade and espionage.

The EU also called for the immediate release of Zhang and the freedom of detained human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng and several other detained and sentenced human rights defenders and individuals who report in the public interest.

“According to credible sources, Ms. Zhang was tortured and ill-treated while in detention and her health has seriously deteriorated,” a spokesman for foreign affairs for the 27-nation EU said in a statement.

Separately, the EU urged China to “ensure procedural justice and due process” to “10 Hong Kong procedural activists who were tried and accused in China of trying to flee to Taiwan.”

She issued a statement calling for the group’s immediate release and swift return from Shenzhen to Hong Kong, where they were tried in a closed court on December 28 with no appointed lawyer of their choice.

The EU’s criticism of the cases comes a day before EU and China leaders are expected to strike a deal to give European companies better access to the Chinese market.

Citizen journalist Zhang was among a handful of people whose firsthand accounts of overcrowded hospitals and empty streets painted a more terrifying picture of the epicenter of the pandemic than the official narrative.

Critics say China purposely allowed Zhang’s trial to take place in the west during the holiday season to minimize scrutiny.

“Restrictions on freedom of expression, access to information and intimidation and surveillance of journalists, as well as the detentions, trials and convictions of human rights defenders, lawyers and intellectuals in China are increasing and remain a major source of concern,” said the EU spokesman .

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