Two Chinese researchers who kept an online repository of banned articles on the coronavirus pandemic have been sentenced, then released, by a court in Beijing.
Chen Mei, 28, and Cai Wei, 27, were found guilty on by the Chaoyang District People's Court on Aug. 13 of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a charge frequently used to target peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Chen and Cai were handed jail terms of one year and three months apiece and released on Aug. 15, after their time served in the Chaoyang Detention Center awaiting trial was taken into account.
The pair were accused in the indictment of posting around 600 articles to their Terminus2049 page on Github, creating a repository of censored and deleted articles about the early weeks of the pandemic in China, according to the indictment against them.
The articles and social media posts included a eulogy for late whistleblowing Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, and an interview with former Wuhan Central Hospital ER director Ai Fen.
Both Chen and Cai pleaded guilty, and were initially held under "residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL)," despite the fact that neither was accused of a crime involving national security.
They were allocated "defense" attorneys by the government, while a rights attorney hired by Chen's family was prevented from acting for his client.
Chen's brother Chen Kun said via Twitter that his brother had returned home on Sunday, adding that he was "in good spirits and physical health," but still needed time to rest and adjust.
Liang Xiaojun, the lawyer hired by Chen's family but prevented from representing him, said he doesn't believe Chen and Cai broke the law.
"Any sentence, however short, is unjust, if you take the position that they are not guilty," Liang told RFA. "But the authorities get them to confess, then go through the process of punishing them, but they are both innocent from a legal point of view."
"All they did was to create an online database of deleted articles, so this is a matter of human rights, of civil rights," he said.
Impact on free speech
Guo Yuhua, professor of sociology at Beijing's Tsinghua University, said the case would have a profound impact on free speech in China.
"It undermines academic freedom and independence, and violates the most basic rights of the individuals concerned," Guo told RFA. "Personally, if I see something online that I think is important, I worry that it could be deleted in future, so I back it up to use in future research."
"Lots of internet users do this, making screenshots or other backups," he said. "There is no law saying that you can't do this."
Another volunteer working on the Github page, Xiao Tang, was detained at the same time as Chen and Cai, then released on bail on May 13, 2020.
The Terminus2049 Github page also contained articles about China's #MeToo movement, allegations of sexual harassment at top Chinese universities, the forced relocation of migrant workers from Beijing, as well as content relating to Maoist labor activism at Shenzhen's Jasic Technology.
The project automatically archived webpages of links that netizens had sent to the site, where they would be preserved even after they were later blocked in China, according to the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"So Terminus 2049 was a decentralized, crowdsourcing platform in which netizens could participate and preserve the Chinese internet’s memory together," HRW said in a report on Chan and Cai's case.
Authorities have occasionally tried to block Github, but have never fully done so, perhaps because numerous developers in China rely on it to build software, the report said.
At the time of Chen and Cai’s detention, Terminus 2049 had archived over 600 articles, of which about 100 are on Covid-19. They include news stories, interviews, and personal accounts from people in Wuhan at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of which criticized the Chinese government’s cover-up of the initial outbreak, HRW said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Gao Feng.