BRUSSELS: The United States and European Union on Tuesday (Dec 29) demanded that China release a citizen journalist jailed for reports from Wuhan, with top US diplomat Mike Pompeo accusing Beijing of covering up COVID-19.
A Chinese court handed down a four-year jail term on Monday to Zhang Zhan, who reported at the peak of the crisis in the city where the coronavirus first emerged. Her lawyer said Zhang was jailed on the grounds of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble".
Pompeo in a statement called on China to "release her immediately and unconditionally."
"The Chinese Communist Party has shown once again it will do whatever it takes to silence those who question the party's official line, even regarding crucial public health information," outgoing President Donald Trump's secretary of state said.
The EU called for Zhang's immediate release, as well as for freedom for jailed human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, and several other detained and convicted human rights defenders and individuals who engaged in reporting in the public interest.
"According to credible sources, Ms Zhang has been subject to torture and ill-treatment during her detention and her health condition has seriously deteriorated," an external affairs spokesman for the 27-nation EU said in a statement.
The EU criticism over the affair comes a day before EU and Chinese leaders are expected to clinch a deal to give European companies better access to the Chinese market.
Zhang was among a handful of people whose firsthand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets painted a more dire picture of the pandemic epicentre than the official narrative.
Critics say that China deliberately arranged for Zhang's trial to take place during the holiday season in the West, to minimize scrutiny.
"The restrictions on freedom of expression, on access to information, and intimidation and surveillance of journalists, as well as detentions, trials and sentencing of human rights defenders, lawyers, and intellectuals in China, are growing and continue to be a source of great concern," the EU spokesman said.