China is showing no sign of easing its crackdown on the nation’s rights defenders.
Earlier this week, rights lawyer Li Heping was officially indicted, and the whereabouts of three other rights activists, including public interest lawyer Jiang Tianyong, are unknown more than two weeks after they disappeared.
Li’s wife, Wang Qianling, learned of her husband’s indictment days after she and attorney Ma Lianshun began pressing authorities in Tianjin for an answer.
“Today [on Thursday], Ms. Wang went to [the procuratorate in] Tianjin again and confirmed that Li is formally charged with treason. No more details were given,” Ma told VOA.
Wang hired Ma to defend Li, one of the country’s best-known lawyers, who was taken away from his home in Beijing during the Communist Party’s sweeping crackdown on rights activists last July.
But the lawyer has never been allowed to meet his client, and the authorities, by putting Li in detention where he is incommunicado, have not followed due process of law.
Ma said Li’s situation is like a “boiling black pot with its lid on for no one to see clearly.”
Guilty verdict expected
What’s clear, however, may be Li’s fate. Experience shows that he may soon be put on trial and most likely be forced to plead guilty even before a verdict is reached.
But Ma called the treason charge against Li ridiculous, arguing that the detained lawyer has done nothing other than advocate for basic human rights.
The attorney suspects Li’s anti-torture, anti-death-penalty studies, funded by overseas organizations, are the main reason behind his treason charge, although the offense is hard to justify.
“In our view, human rights should transcend sovereignty,” Ma said, “Our country’s record of human rights hasn’t been ideal. Thus, the nature of [Li’s] studies, which aimed to promote human rights, should have been academic, rational and peaceful. That was far from subverting state power.”
Over the past few years, Li had defended underground Christians, political dissidents and followers of the banned group Falun Gong, as well as the blind “barefoot” lawyer Chen Guangcheng, all of which have irked Chinese authorities, Ma said.
Ma argued that the government’s crackdown has done the opposite of silencing outspoken lawyers. Instead, it has revealed the fallacy of those in power as the support for detained members of the country’s civil rights community has grown domestically and internationally.
Despite that, authorities continue to suppress dissident lawyers and rights activists. Jiang and two other rights campaigners, Huang Qi and Liu Feiyue, have been missing since late November. And their whereabouts remain unknown, said Chen Jinxue, who represents Jiang.
Jiang’s enforced disappearance
Over the past two weeks, Chen has accompanied Jiang’s father to file a police report on Jiang’s disappearance. But the public security apparatus has either refused to launch an investigation or made things difficult for them, Chen said.
Among other things, police have asked Jiang’s father to prove his relationship with his son or retrieve surveillance camera footage in Changsha himself, signs of deliberate inaction by police, according to Chen.
Jiang allegedly went missing after November 21 while boarding a train from Changsha in Hunan province. Jiang was traveling to Hunan to try to arrange a meeting with Xie Yang, a lawyer arrested in last year’s crackdown of rights activists, and was accompanied by Xie’s wife and lawyers.
Jiang never made it back to Beijing and is suspected to have been forcefully detained.
“The overall trend of arresting rights lawyers has apparently continued. Jiang is another target of the massive crackdown since July 9, 2015,” Chen said.
By law, police should have informed Jiang’s family of his whereabouts within 24 hours of his arrest.
At risk of torture
If he is under secret detention, Jiang would be at risk of torture. He had been beaten repeatedly during his previous enforced disappearances, which hurt his memory and hearing abilities, his wife Jin Bianling told VOA.
“I’m extremely worried that he may be tortured again. Also, he needs medication to lower his blood pressure. Without his medicines, he will be in a bad shape,” Jin said.
Jin, who lives in the U.S. with her daughter, has initiated a campaign online, urging China’s public security to investigate Jiang’s disappearance soon or hold those responsible for his secret detention accountable.
The campaign has, so far, garnered hundreds of signatures from supporters in an open letter addressed to head of China’s Public Security Bureau.
Jin also expressed concerns over her husband’s disappearance at a hearing organized by the State Council in Washington on Wednesday.
Rights groups, including experts from the United Nations and Freedom House, have also issued statements to express similar concerns.