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Fear that Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan could be "tortured in prison" for reporting on COVID

Chinese journalist restrained and fed by tube
Chinese journalist restrained and fed by tube... 02:26

Beijing — Citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old former lawyer, has given up hope of avoiding her four-year prison sentence for reporting on the coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan early last year. A year after Zhang arrived in Wuhan, risking both arrest and her own health to tell people what was happening in the city believed by many to be ground zero of the pandemic, her lawyer told CBS News "the case is closed," and she's not looking at any further legal options.

But Zhang also hasn't resigned to sit out her prison sentence without protesting what she considers an unjust persecution, simply for telling the truth. She's been on a hunger strike since June last year, and she intends to persevere.

Zhang Zhan was detained in May and sentenced in late December for "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," a vague charge often levelled against activists and critics of the government in China. 

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Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan is seen in an undated photograph published by the rights group, Chinese Human Rights Defenders. Chinese Human Rights Defenders

"The case has been closed. Her four-year-imprisonment has taken effect", Zhang Zhan's lawyer Zhang Keke told CBS News in a rare face-to-face interview in Wuhan. Zhang Zhan doesn't believe she can expect any real justice from the Chinese legal system, said her lawyer, who has the same surname but is of no relation to Zhang.

The attorney said it was hinted to Zhang by staff at the detention center where she's been held for months that any appeal against her sentence could leave her facing an even longer prison term, which may be one reason she decided against further legal action.

Zhang Keke said he wasn't optimistic about his client's health, as Zhang intended to keep up her hunger strike until she is released. Authorities were force-feeding her through a feeding tube and restraining her hands 24 hours a day so she could not pull it out as of late last year. Lawyer Zhang described her as "out of phase" when he visited her on Christmas Day, noting that she has lost about 44 pounds since she was first detained in May. 

"She could also be tortured in prison," worried the lawyer in his interview this week.

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Lawyers Ren Quanniu, left, and Zhang Keke, right, are defending Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who was arrested for reporting on the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. At center is Zhang Zhan's mother Shao Wenxia.

Authorities have ordered Zhang Keke not to speak to the press and censored him on social media. He said his career and even his family have been threatened, but he was determined to continue speaking up for his client, so he agreed to talk to CBS News.

"If lawyers do nothing, what will this society turn into?" he told CBS News.

Zhang Zhan's treatment has drawn international condemnation. The United States, the United Nations human rights office and the European Union all denounced China's court system for sentencing Zhang to prison in December.

"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. We call on the PRC government to release her immediately and unconditionally," then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. "The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 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."

Pompeo added that the Chinese "government's fear of transparency and its ongoing repression of fundamental freedoms are a sign of weakness, not strength, and a threat to all of us."

Zhang Zhan isn't the only critic who Chinese authorities have persecuted for speaking out about the country's COVID-19 outbreak. Professor Xu Zhangrun, who was detained for criticizing President Xi Jinping over his coronavirus response, is currently under surveillance and has been barred from leaving Beijing.

Documentary reveals "China's Covid Secrets" 09:11

Citizen journalists Chen Qiushi and Wuhan resident Fang Bin who, like Zhang, reported on the disease from Wuhan early last year, have been missing for months.

The Chinese government has exerted near total control over the coronavirus narrative in the country, touting its success in controlling the disease and pushing conspiracy theories through state-controlled media that it originated outside of China.

While most experts agree that the first known outbreak in the world occurred in Wuhan, a World Health Organization team is currently in the city investigating the virus' origin, and members of that team have stressed to CBS News that nothing is certain yet.

WHO investigators search for COVID-19 clues i... 02:18

"China has always maintained close communication and cooperation with the WHO in the virus origin tracing in an open and transparent manner," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin insisted during a media briefing on Wednesday.

"It has been a year since the virus outbreak in Wuhan happened — can the experts find relevant evidence on the virus origin?" Zhang's lawyer wondered in his interview with CBS News.

Meanwhile, as his client has decided not to appeal her sentence, Zhang Keke will no longer have access to her.

"What I can do is very limited. As for now, family can't go visit her," the lawyer told CBS News. "I can only sit here and let more people know about her, and hope her treatment will improve and she can get out soon."

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