New York Times: In China, Relatives Await Word on Detained Rights Lawyers After a Year

The New York Times
By Didi Kirsten Tatlow

July 8, 2016

■ Beijing — You Minglei, a legal assistant to a human rights lawyer in Fuzhou, in southern China, was waiting on Friday for his wife, Zhao Wei, to come home. The police had released Ms. Zhao on bail on Thursday after nearly a year in jail and just two days before the anniversary of mass detentions of rights lawyers and activists in China that have drawn criticism from around the world and that are known as “709’’ for July 9, the day it began last year.

“I’m happy,” Mr. You said by telephone.

Yet he had no idea when Ms. Zhao, 24, also a legal assistant, would return home. Nor did Ms. Zhao’s two lawyers. None of the three men had heard from the police in the eastern city of Tianjin who had charged her with state subversion. None were allowed to see her during the year she was in jail, and they did not know why she was released.

Messages appeared on Ms. Zhao’s Weibo social media account starting on Thursday, saying that she was out of jail and was fine, but they gave no further details — including regarding her whereabouts.

The police in Tianjin said she had been released after she admitted her crimes and showed a good attitude.

Unlike Mr. You, dozens of relatives of the lawyers and others caught up in the sweep that has spread fear and defiance through China’s embattled legal rights community are still waiting for their loved ones’ release. It has been a year since the police began detaining about 250 lawyers, legal activists and human rights activists.

The wives of human rights lawyers who were detained a year
ago wore dresses with their husbands’ names to the state
prosecutor’s offices in Beijing on Monday.
Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Most were released after questioning, but the Public Security Bureau has formally arrested 17, Amnesty International said, many on the serious charges of state subversion or inciting state subversion. The Chinese authorities said last year that the rights lawyers were spreading “social chaos” through their litigation.

The Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group, set up in 2013 to support detained rights lawyers, listed 23 on Friday who were in detention, some incommunicado.

Legal groups in China and overseas, as well as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, have sharply criticized the detentions.

This week, the relatives of those still behind bars began to speak out — and act out — their protest.

They plan to do so again on Saturday in Tianjin, where many of the detainees are being held, said Wang Qiaoling, the wife of one of the imprisoned lawyers.

On Monday, several women including Ms. Wang wore dresses on which they had written the names of their jailed husbands and walked to the offices of the state prosecutor in Beijing, where they tried to hand over a formal complaint about the detentions and charges.

The police allowed them into the building but refused their complaint, according to a European diplomat who was present. Several foreign diplomats were on hand, signaling the concern that some overseas governments have over the crackdown. To mark the anniversary, the German Embassy in Beijing released a statement expressing its “grave concern” over the detentions.

In an interview on Friday as she prepared to travel to Tianjin to continue the protest, Ms. Wang, who is married to Li Heping, who was Ms. Zhao’s boss, said that adversity had made her strong and that the hardest times were behind her family.

“For a year, the authorities have not let us move home, nor let our children go to school,” she said.

She added: “We’ve been called to the police station and been frightened; we are not allowed to get lawyers for ourselves, publish or do interviews with foreign media.”

“Because my husband is the main breadwinner in the family, this year we fell into dangerous financial times,” she continued.

“In the very beginning, it was painful and really hard to manage things, but the hardest days are over,” she said. “Now we’re out of it, and we’re facing daily life and reality with optimism, and continuing to protest.”

In a statement issued this week, the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group warned that China had become a “permanent” repressive state.

“We are witnessing a transition from spasmodic suppression to a permanent high-pressure state,” read the statement, published in English on the website of China Change, a group based overseas. Chang Boyang, a member of the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group, vouched for the statement’s authenticity.

“There is no factual basis for the charges against Zhao Wei or Li Heping,” Mr. Chang said. “It’s an act of political repression and doesn’t conform to the law.”

Late Friday, Mr. You was still waiting for his wife to come home.

Even after she does, “she’s not free yet,” he said, because her release on Thursday is conditional for one year.

“If you do something they’re not satisfied with, you may have to go in again,” he said.

Mr. You added that an open letter on Ms. Zhao’s Weibo account, said to be written by his wife, that accused her boss, Mr. Li, of exploiting her by asking her to “put out information on my personal Weibo, influencing public opinion” and of accepting foreign funding for his work, was unlikely to have reflected her true thoughts.

In comments online, some readers compared the letter to forced confessions on state television, which have occurred in similar recent cases.

The reasons for Ms. Zhao’s release were not clear, but the police in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, said on their official Weibo account on Friday that they had criminally detained one of her lawyers, Ren Quanniu, for saying that his client had suffered “physical insults” while in detention, causing an “odious social impact” and harming Ms. Zhao’s reputation.

In earlier interviews, Mr. Ren said he believed Ms. Zhao’s release, long rumored, came because she had been sexually assaulted in detention. Others, including Mr. Ren and her other lawyer, Yan Huafeng, said another reason was that her case was too flimsy to be prosecuted.

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