As millions of people across China prepare to celebrate the Spring Festival, hundreds of human rights defenders remain separated from their families.
The Spring Festival marks the lunar new year, and for many in China, it is traditionally a time to be with family and friends. However, many human rights lawyers, journalists and activists are unable to gather with their relatives, either because they are in prison for their peaceful defence of human rights, or because their spouses and children have already had to flee the country to avoid being penalised for being connected to a human rights defender. In recent years, there has been a sharp increase of police harassment of family members of prisoners of conscience.
Among those separated from their families this year is Zhang Zhan, a Christian human rights defender and former lawyer who travelled to the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan in February 2020 and posted videos and articles about the virus outbreak on social media. She was detained in May 2020 and subsequently spent over seven months in detention, during which time her health has deteriorated. Her trial on 28 December lasted only a few hours. She was sentenced to four years in prison.
On 2 February, authorities revoked the licence of one of Zhang’s lawyers, Ren Quanniu. In addition to working on Zhang’s case, he was also involved in the case of 12 Hong Kong activists arrested while trying to flee to Taiwan. Another lawyer working on the case, Lu Siwei, also had his licence revoked by the Chengdu authorities after a hearing on 13 January.
Zhang Zhan (L), Credit: Twitter/@consultorzhang, and Ren Quanniu (R), Credit: Twitter/@Renquanniu
CSW also remains concerned about the detention of human rights lawyer Chang Weiping, who has been in detention since 22 October 2020. Prior to his detention, Chang represented clients in cases related to freedom of religion or belief, forced demolition and discrimination (HIV, gender and LGBT issues). He has been accused of ‘inciting subversion of state power’.
On 5 February, Chang’s wife Chen Zijuan released a statement with details of the case and its impact on their family. In the statement she describes the torture Chang was subjected to in a previous period of detention in January 2020, under ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL)’, including being tied up and forced to sit in a ‘tiger chair’, causing intense pain and swelling in his legs, as well as sleep deprivation and denial of adequate food. According to the statement, police also harassed his family, including his elderly parents and his seven-year-old son, who was so traumatised that he asked his mother what he should do if the police held a gun to his head.
In a 2020 report, CSW drew attention to the targeting of lawyers who defend cases relating to freedom of religion or belief. It included those detained in the infamous ‘709 crackdown’ beginning in July 2015, when over 300 human rights lawyers and activists, and their colleagues and family members, were interrogated, detained and in some cases imprisoned or disappeared. Many of these lawyers have represented individuals arrested in connection with their religion or belief. Nearly six years on, the Chinese government continues to detain, torture and disappear human rights lawyers, and the colleagues who defend them, and their family members, in wave after wave of persecution.
Another family facing separation this New Year is that of veteran human rights lawyer and long-term prisoner of conscience Gao Zhisheng. Between 2006 and 2011 he was ‘disappeared’ multiple times and suffered beatings and torture. From 2011-2014 he served a prison sentence. He was released in August 2014, only to disappear again in August 2017. His whereabouts are unknown, but he is believed to be in some form of detention. His family in the US have continuously called for his release.
Gao Zhisheng. Credit: Badiucao
Even as the government separates families who value celebrating this festival together, they also force other people who have different cultural backgrounds to celebrate it. According to Radio Free Asia, officials in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have forced ethnic minorities to celebrate the Spring Festival by beating gongs and hanging red lanterns on the streets, despite their different traditions in their own cultures. RFA reports that anyone who resists could face arbitrary detention in one of the camps holding over one million Uyghurs and member of other ethnic groups in the region.
CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: “As millions of people in China celebrate one of the biggest festivals in the country’s calendar, CSW remembers the hundreds of human rights defenders and their families whose holiday will be marked by the sadness of being separated from a family member. Human rights defenders are not only regularly detained in China but are often held incommunicado and effectively disappeared, with their families left with no news of their whereabouts. This is inhumane. CSW calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all those detained on account of their peaceful defence of human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief. The international community must strongly condemn the detention of human rights defenders and other ongoing violations in China, demanding their immediate release and that the government ceases all harassment of their families. Allegations of torture are also extremely concerning and must be urgently investigated in line with international law.”
Chang Weiping and family. Credit: Twitter/@zijuan_chen