Zhang Zhan has been in police custody since May after she live-streamed from outbreak epicentre and criticised official response

Trial could begin as early as next month for ex-lawyer who faces four to five years imprisonment

Shanghai-based citizen journalist and ex-lawyer

could face four to five years in prison for reporting on the

in Wuhan earlier this year, sources familiar with her case said.

Zhang, 37, was arrested in mid-May by Shanghai police for allegedly “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a catch-all charge often used by authorities to muzzle dissent.

Shanghai Pudong district prosecutors have recommended the maximum penalty for Zhang, citing previous offences in 2018 and 2019, according to official documents seen by the

“She is now being accused of fabricating malicious and false information about the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan and accepting interviews with overseas media,” a source said.

Zhang, whose trial could start as early as next month, has maintained her innocence and insisted she should be released unconditionally, according to sources, who declined to be identified because of fears of retribution. “Her family and friends are gravely concerned that she will receive a heavy sentence because of her defiance,” one source said.

Zhang is currently held at a detention centre in Shanghai where she began to refuse food in the second month of her arrest. “She was initially being force-fed and put on drips when she first started the hunger strike as she demanded to be released unconditionally,” according to a source.

“Her cell mates eventually were told to feed her and she later resumed eating on her own.”

Zhang travelled to Wuhan – where the first coronavirus cases were reported late last year – in February and live-streamed what she saw there on social media platforms, including Twitter and YouTube which are both blocked in China.

She also wrote an article critical of the official response to the outbreak in Wuhan, accusing the government of imposing measures which infringed on people’s rights, and questioned whether authorities had covered up the severity of the outbreak. Zhang also spoke out against censorship by the mainstream media.

She was detained on May 15 for her reporting in Wuhan and was officially charged three months later. The previous offences referred to by prosecutors include a police warning in August 2018 for allegedly inciting subversion. She was also held on two separate occasions – in April and November 2019 – for “picking quarrels” and “disrupting public order”.

Three other citizen journalists –

– have been detained for criticising or vlogging the pandemic in Wuhan.

Li reappeared on social media in late April while Chen, a former lawyer and blogger, has been held since September under “supervised surveillance at a designated residence” in the eastern city of Qingdao, Shandong province. The fate of Fang, a Wuhan resident and high-profile blogger, remains unknown.

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