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Guangdong rights activists get ‘lighter than expected’ sentences as defiant detainee’s fate hangs in balance

Three leading Guangdong labour rights activists were given suspended sentences of up to three years in prison for “disturbing public order”, one of their lawyers said on Monday.

Zeng Feiyang, director of the Guangdong Panyu Migrant Worker Centre, was sentenced to three years with a four-year reprieve. Zhu Xiaomei and Tang Jian, who are also centre members, were given sentences of 18 months with two-year reprieves.

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“This is lighter than we expected, as Zeng could have been sentenced to up to seven years,” said Lai Shengqi, a lawyer representing Zeng.

“So this is the best outcome my client and his family could hope for.”

The fate of Meng Han, who also worked with Zeng, is still undecided. Unlike the other three, he has refused to confess, which he had said in a letter would be “betraying his conscience”.

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Prosecutors had ordered Meng’s case to be reinvestigated until the end of this month, and would set his court date then, according to Yan Xin, Meng’s lawyer.

“He is not a candidate for reprieve, due to a previous conviction for disturbing public order that saw him jailed for nine months in 2013,” Yan said.

According to Meng’s long-term girlfriend, who did not want to be named, he refused to confess even though his parents had been subjected to an attack by armed thugs in Zhongshan, who vandalised their door and forced them to relocate to another city.

Labour rights still a work in progress

Zeng made a confession to ­police in June after his son and wife were used to pressure him, according to sources close to the family.

“The family was told that Zeng could go home after the trial if they cooperated with authorities, including remaining low profile,” one of the sources said.

The trial was held at a public security base with a heavy police presence.

Over the years, Zeng has become one of the mainland’s most prominent labour activists, helping migrant workers in the Pearl and Yangtse river deltas.

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He was arrested with other activists in December for “gathering a crowd and disturbing public order” in one of the worst crackdowns on labour rights seen in the country for decades.

Zeng was not allowed to meet a lawyer for at least six months after his arrest, according to his parents. They said they were going to sue state media in April for smearing their son’s character, but were pressured by authorities to give up that pursuit or see the careers of Zeng’s nephews sabotaged.

According to the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, Zeng’s rights centre had a good reputation among workers and was able on occasion to facilitate talks between employers, employees and local government officials. At the Lide shoe factory in Guangzhou, Zeng’s centre helped workers win 100 million yuan (HK$116 million) in compensation in a dispute over relocation costs and social insurance payments, the Hong Kong group said.