HONG KONG — It's been a dismal month for the rule of law in China.
On Friday, Chen Kegui, the nephew of blind activist Chen Guangcheng, was summarily tried, convicted, and sentenced to three years and three months in prison for fighting with local officials who broke into his house in the middle of the night after his uncle's escape.
Nobody in his family was informed of the trial until shortly before it began, in Linyi city, Shandong province. The trial, conviction and sentencing all happened in a single afternoon — unusually hurried, even by show-trial standards.
Legal observers say it all bodes poorly for hopes of legal reform under the new regime in Beijing.
“Chen Kegui's trial failed to meet minimum standards of fair trial under domestic or international standards,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Jerome Cohen, one of the most respected experts on China’s legal system, blasted the trial as "the ultimate example of judicial farce in China, not a happy example of how human rights will be protected by China's new leadership. The ‘trial’ was held in ways guaranteed to prevent any possible defense or any possible observer to attend.”
Over the last seven months of Chen’s imprisonment, he was cut off from communication with the outside world. The lawyer hired by his family was forbidden to speak with Chen, or to review evidence. His mother and father, who rushed to court when informed that the trial was to take place, were excluded from the proceedings. And at the sentencing, Chen not only said he would not appeal, but that he would pay compensation — a sign, Cohen said, that his confession had been coerced.
“This is worse than even the trial of Chen Guangcheng himself in 2006,” Cohen said.
Chen Guangcheng attracted international media attention after dramatically escaping from house arrest and fleeing to the US Embassy in Beijing. After extensive negotiations between the US and China, he was granted a visa to study at New York University in May of this year.
In a video released to coincide with Human Rights Day, Chen Guangcheng denounced the rapid conviction of his nephew as an act of “revenge.”
Urging the United States to pressure China for human rights violations, he pointed to Beijing’s promise to “have a thorough investigation of those persecuting me and my family in Shandong for the past several years and to make the decisions public,” as translated by Anthony Tao.
Yet, Chen said, “they have not kept their word. To this day, there has been no news that the Communist Party leaders are willing to change and do the right thing. They are posing a challenge to humanity, justice and our conscience.”
Speaking with the Freedom Tower visible behind him, Chen Guangcheng called on China’s incoming president Xi Jinping to advance the cause of reform, or face the consequences.
“The Communist Party officials at every level continue to act against the state law and humanity. Which part of China’s law gives the Communist Party such special power? How can you rule the country with justice when you yourself are crooked? … How can the international community turn a blind eye to the crimes committed by the Chinese Communist Party in maintaining its power?”
Chen Guangcheng has repeatedly stressed that his goal is simply to have the Chinese government obey and enforce its own laws. Since leaving the country, however, his criticisms have become more outspoken and wide-ranging, touching on taboo issues such as Tibet and Falun Gong. Chen has even predicted that revolution could come to China as early as 2013.
All this could bode poorly for his prospects of returning to China anytime soon. While Chen maintains that his repatriation is “inevitable,” mainland authorities have a history of preferring to keep dissidents out of the country, effectively silencing them.
More from GlobalPost: If The Onion's not funny in China, what is?
The sentencing of Chen's nephew came on the heels of another high-profile case that disturbed legal observers. At the end of October, an Internet cafe owner, Cao Haibo, 27, was sentenced to eight years in prison. Cao's "crime" consisted of founding a group devoted to discussing democracy building on the ideas of Sun Yat Sen, the revolutionary founder of post-imperial China.
Cao was held in prison for a year before his trial, and was denied visits from his pregnant wife. The verdict was delivered to his wife and family by phone, without any prior notice that the trial had taken place.
Journalist Gao Yu tweeted after the verdict, “If you still believe there is such a thing as the so-called ‘reform faction’ among the senior leaders, think about Cao Haibo!”
Still, some argue that while politically charged trials do not get a fair hearing in China, that should not obscure the areas of progress. Stan Abrams, a Beijing-based intellectual property lawyer, argued in early November that "high-profile cases" are not "representative of China's judicial system," and so should not be used to make sweeping conclusions about the rule of law.
"These cases do not represent the vast majority of civil or criminal actions in China, and therefore using them to make a general assertion about rule of law in China is inaccurate and misleading," he said.