ucanews.com reporters, Hong KongUpdated: March 26, 2015 11:59 PM GMT
Christians gather outside the Pingyang courthouse on Tuesday to await the result of Pastor Huang Yizi's hearing. (Photo by ucanews.com)
A Chinese court on Tuesday sentenced a Protestant pastor to one year behind bars, the first prison term handed down by authorities in Zhejiang province following a demolition campaign targeting hundreds of churches.
Pastor Huang Yizi was found guilty of “gathering a crowd to disturb public order” after he and a group of Christians tried unsuccessfully to protect the cross of Salvation Church from police in July last year.
About 600 supporters of the pastor crowded outside the Pingyang County courthouse until the trial concluded yesterday evening as many complained authorities had filled the court with officials so that only six friends and family members could attend.
“We must appeal, the entire trial is a violation of [legal] procedure,” defense lawyer Zhang Kai told US-based Christian rights group China Aid.
Pastor Huang of Fenwo Church was detained in August, a month after baton-wielding police forced their way past Christians at Salvation Church during the height of a provincial campaign in which 400 crosses were removed and 35 churches destroyed in Zhejiang.
During the police operation at Salvation Church, more than a dozen Christians were hospitalized including three people who reportedly suffered fractured skulls.
Prosecutors originally charged Pastor Huang with assaulting state officials but later altered the charges to disturbing public order.
“The culprit who hit people until they were seriously wounded is still at large while Pastor Huang — who seeks justice — is sentenced to prison. There is no justice,” one elderly Christian said outside the courtroom yesterday.
“Those who created false cases must be held accountable. This is the common aspiration of the million faithful in Wenzhou.”
Pastor Huang’s wife missed yesterday’s trial in order to travel to Beijing to petition the central government over the case.
The Communist Party yesterday issued guidelines it said would see greater public and central government oversight over provincial and city authorities after years of abuse of power, but these are not expected to be fully implemented until the end of next year.
In January, Pastor Huang’s defense filed three counter suits including wrongful detention but the court refused to accept them without justifying its decision.
In another of the three denied by the court, the pastor claimed that the Public Security Bureau and local government told him he would be released if he dismissed his lawyers, which is a violation of Chinese law.
Huang followed their request in December but then rehired his legal team after authorities failed to release him.
“Through arbitrary arrests, baseless prosecution and illegal procedures throughout this trial, this case shows once again the worsening situation of religious freedom and rule of law in China,” said Pastor Bob Fu, president of China Aid.
“We call upon China’s higher authorities to overturn this unjust decision and free Pastor Huang immediately.”
Courts in Zhejiang are scheduled to hear a number of other cases of people who tried to stand in the way of the provincial government’s church demolition campaign, which reportedly ended in December.
A court in Wenzhou’s Yongjia County on Wednesday was due to hear the cases of three Christians arrested during the demolition of Sanjiang Church, the largest in the city until it was turn down by authorities in April last year.