Gao Feng | Radio Free Asia
There are fears that Yu Wensheng may not regain his freedom, but remain subject to police restrictions
Chinese rights lawyer Yu Wensheng is incommunicado after his release from prison, while veteran rights attorney Jiang Tianyong has been under house arrest since his release three years ago.
Yu was released from Nanjing Prison on March 1, after which he had a brief phone call with his wife Xu Yan, who was in a Beijing hotel, according to a post on Xu’s Twitter account.
During the call, Yu told Xu he would meet her at the Beijing hotel.
However, it was unclear whether the couple have returned to their Beijing home. Repeated calls to Xu’s mobile number rang unanswered in recent days.
Fellow rights attorney Lin Qilei, who defended Yu, said the couple haven’t been in contact with friends or colleagues since.
“There has been no news at all,” Lin said. “We would at least have expected [Xu] to say that it was inconvenient for them to speak to people, and that Yu was with her, but there has been no statement, nothing.”
“This is very unusual, and it may be that they have been told not to say anything because the parliamentary sessions have just opened in Beijing,” Lin said, in a reference to the opening of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), during which stringent “stability maintenance” protocols are in place to prevent comment or protest from dissenting voices.
“They’re not allowing her to say anything … did they confiscate her mobile phone? We have know way of knowing,” he said.
Lawyer Huang Hanzhong said Yu is likely still under a huge amount of pressure from state security police, despite having been released at the end of his sentence.
“I [messaged to ask] Xu about Yu Wensheng, but she didn’t answer me,” Huang said. “I tried calling her yesterday and the day before, but couldn’t get through on the phone.”
“I guess she is being held under [stability maintenance] controls,” he said. “I’m guessing that Yu Wensheng probably went home.”
Fellow rights lawyer Wang Yu said she had messaged Xu on Telegram, and the message was marked as read, but no reply came.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Wang said. “Because even if the state security police are putting her under a lot of pressure, she can still say she is under a lot of pressure, or that it’s inconvenient to speak or give interviews, or to be in touch.”
Veteran rights attorney Jiang Tianyong has remained under house arrest since his release from prison in 2019, and Wang and Huang both said they worry that the same thing will happen to Yu.
“Lawyer Wang Quanzhang was held under house arrest for a period of time in Jinan, while Jiang Tianyong still isn’t truly free,” Huang said. “But Yu’s household registration is in Beijing, not elsewhere in China, so maybe it’ll be different.”
“The reason Xu Yan didn’t go to Nanjing to meet him is that her hometown is in Jiangsu, so everyone thought if she did that, they wouldn’t be allowed to go back to Beijing,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lin said Xu’s attempt to set up a legal consulting firm after Yu’s license to practice law was revoked by the authorities may do little to help the couple, who may face financial hardship.
“It may not be much use for lawyers whose licenses have been canceled or revoked to start a legal services company, because they can still stop you getting involved in cases,” Lin said.
“I don’t think it will make a lot of difference [to their situation].”
In June 2020, Jiangsu’s Xuzhou Intermediate People’s Court handed a four-year jail term to Yu on subversion charges, after finding him guilty of “incitement to subvert state power” in a secret trial.
The sentence, which came after Yu was held for nearly three years in pretrial detention, was widely seen by fellow lawyers as a form of political retaliation for Yu’s outspokenness following a nationwide operation targeting rights lawyers and law firms that began on July 9, 2015.
The overseas-based rights network Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) said Yu’s role as former defense attorney for fellow attorney Wang Quanzhang was also behind his persecution at the hands of the authorities.
Yu was indicted on Feb. 1, 2019 and his case handed over to the municipal prosecutor in Jiangsu’s Xuzhou city. His lawyers made dozens of attempts to visit him, but all requests were denied.
He was held under “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL), a form of detention used in cases allegedly involving matters of state security.
The measure, which enables the authorities to deny access to lawyers or family visits, has been repeatedly used to target human rights lawyers, and is associated with a higher risk of torture and other mistreatment, rights groups said.
Shortly before his detention, Yu’s application to start a new law firm was rejected over comments he made “opposing Communist Party rule and attacking the country’s socialist legal system,” Amnesty International said.
Yu had earlier described being beaten up and tortured in handcuffs by police in Daxing after he voiced support for the 2014 pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Yu was also detained in October 2017 after he wrote an open letter criticizing President Xi Jinping as ill-suited to lead China due to his strengthening totalitarian rule over the country.