The health of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan is “deteriorating” from a prolonged hunger strike she started months ago while in jail to protest a four-year prison term handed to her by Chinese state authorities in December for her reporting on Wuhan’s initial coronavirus outbreak last year.
“She has been on hunger strike and force-fed through nasal tubes with her limbs restrained for long periods,” a lawyer for Zhang who asked not to be identified told Agence France-Presse (AFP) of his client this week.
Zhang, a 37-year-old woman from Shanghai, China, “had become very thin and almost unrecognizable by Christmas [December 2020],” according to the lawyer, who added that Zhang appeared in court that month in a wheelchair due to her frail health.
“By not eating, she wants to protest against the illegal nature of her treatment,” Zhang Keke, another member of Zhang Zhan’s legal team told AFP.
“She believes that not eating is a way to tell them [Chinese authorities] they are wrong,” Keke said.
Keke previously issued a statement saying that when he visited Zhang in jail in early December 2020 she told him she was being force-fed via a feeding tube and was suffering from stomach pain, dizziness, and headaches.
“Restrained 24 hours a day, she needs assistance going to the bathroom, and she tosses and turns in her sleep,” the lawyer said in a statement shared by the BBC.
“She feels psychologically exhausted, like every day is a torment,” Keke added.
Zhang traveled from Shanghai to the central Chinese city of Wuhan in February 2020 to report on the local coronavirus outbreak there, which was the epicenter of China’s coronavirus epidemic in late 2019. Zhang filmed coronavirus patients lining the halls of Wuhan hospitals and published the footage, along with open letters critical of Wuhan’s alleged attempts to cover up the then-unfolding health crisis, online. Her amateur reporting soon caught the attention of Chinese state authorities, who arrested and detained Zhang in Shanghai in May 2020.
The Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Court sentenced Zhang to four years in prison on December 28, 2020, for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” which is considered a crime in China under the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The party regularly uses the vague catchall to jail Chinese political dissidents.
“According to credible sources, Ms Zhang has been subject to torture and ill-treatment during her detention and her health condition has seriously deteriorated. It is crucial that she receives adequate medical assistance,” a spokesperson for the European Union (E.U.) said on December 29 in a statement calling for Zhang’s immediate release.
The U.S. government joined the E.U. in campaigning for Zhang’s release late last year.
“The United States strongly condemns the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) sham prosecution and conviction of citizen journalist Zhang Zhan on December 28,” then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on December 29.
“We call on the PRC government to release her immediately and unconditionally,” he added.