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.)