In recent years, Chinese authorities have made increasing use of televised or printed, and likely coerced, confessions in politically sensitive cases. Since the “Black Friday” or “709” crackdown in July 2015, detained rights lawyers and activists have been publicized confessing their own guilt, implicating associates, and, in the recent case of Xie Yang, denouncing supposed foreign “brainwashing” and retracting his earlier descriptions of torture by investigators. As human rights researcher Michael Caster writes at Hong Kong Free Press, however, vulnerable members of China’s rights defense community have begun to preemptively disavow such statements, as well as actions often attributed to incommunicado detainees such as dismissing defense lawyers and restricting family members’ access to bank accounts.
Xie, detained in July 2015, wrote in a January 2017 affidavit, “If, one day in the future, I do confess – whether in writing or on camera or on tape – that will not be the true expression of my own mind. It may be because I’ve been subjected to prolonged torture, or because I’ve been offered the chance to be released on bail…” Soon after his trial, Xie was released on bail, but he is not free. [Xie’s U.S.-based wife says that he has been taken with his elderly parents to a remote location in the mountains, and seems unable to speak freely on the phone.]
It seems police abducted Chen Jiangang [Xie’s former lawyer, whom authorities replaced ahead of the trial] to ensure his silence during Xie’s trial, but as soon as he was taken, reasonable fears circulated that he would be “disappeared”. Like Xie Yang, Chen’s understanding of the cruelty of China’s police state bred prescience. Three months earlier he had recorded a video statement to be released if he lost freedom. It was published on the China Change website soon after he was taken.
A sombre five minutes, Chen states that he has committed no crimes and won’t accuse others. Any spoken, written, or video confession will only have been made under duress, threat, or torture. If, in the future, he ends up on television accusing others or revealing names, he asks for forgiveness. Emotionally, he ends with, “If I am seized, dear kids, your father loves you. If I lose my freedom, release this video.”
[…] It is a travesty of the rule of law that anyone would need to think of preemptively recording their own defence against baseless charges and forced confessions but if more human rights defenders did so then potentially the power of this repressive measure will ultimately be lost through the unmasking of contradictions. [Source]
Late last week, new details emerged on the mistreatment of lawyer Li Heping, who was belatedly released last week with a suspended sentence for inciting subversion of state power. Friends have noted Li’s enduring optimism, but expressed shock at his physical condition following alleged beatings, shackling, sleep deprivation, forced and inappropriate medication, and stress positions. Li’s brother Li Chunfu was also detained, emerging in January with signs of severe psychological trauma. From John Sudworth at the BBC:
Li Heping was finally released from detention on Tuesday and his wife Wang Qiaoling has now had time to learn about the treatment he endured over his almost two-year-long incarceration.
“It meant that he could not stand up straight, he could only stoop, even during sleeping. He wore that instrument of torture 24/7 for one month.”
[…] Despite the prolonged and extreme nature of the alleged torture, Ms Wang tells me her husband never did confess.
“He was worried that he might be tortured to death in the detention centre and he wouldn’t make it to meet his family again, so he reached an agreement with the authorities that the trial would be held in secret.
“He would be given a suspended sentence but he never admitted guilt or confessed that he had subverted state power.” [Source]
Sudworth also highlighted Wang’s account in the first installment of a new China Desk feature on the BBC World Service’s Newshour program intended as “a regular round-up of the voices and issues that may have been overlooked in the day-to-day reporting of Chinese affairs.” “We’d welcome listeners’ suggestions for topics to include in our China Desk,” he concluded, “but for now, with concern rising about the erosion of civil liberties in the democratic world, I make no apology for starting this first China Desk with a story that illustrates that there is still a stark contrast between societies in which political freedoms are guaranteed by law, and those in which they are not.”
Sudworth notes that although Wang’s account “is impossible to independently verify, it tallies with that of other lawyers caught up in the crackdown, including Xie Yang.” Yet another emerged last week from Jin Bianling, the wife of the more recently detained rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong. From Radio Free Asia:
“Today is the 172nd day of Jiang Tianyong’s secret detention. To this day, nobody in our family knows exactly where he is being held. His lawyers aren’t permitted to meet with him.
We have recently learned from a sympathetic official source in Changsha that Jiang Tianyong has been tortured. There is a problem with his feet. They are so swollen that he can’t stand up. He may be crippled for life.
I was extremely concerned and worried when I heard about this. I fear for Jiang Tianyong’s life and his well-being, because I have seen that other lawyers, Xie Yang, Li Chunfu, and Li Heping released recently had been detained and tortured too.
I worry that Jiang Tianyong won’t be able to bear it.
[…] I call on China’s judicial system to carry out an investigation into Jiang Tianyong’s treatment and make his whereabouts and situation publicly known.[“] [Source]
Amnesty International’s William Nee notes on Twitter that Changsha police have released video to show that Jiang is able to walk.
The family’s lawyer, Chen Jiangang, who was denied access to Monday’s trial, believes Xie’s release is part of a trade-off.
He insisted what he disclosed in January about Xie’s torture by Hunan police was based on Xie’s own words during their meetings, even though his client denied the allegations in court.
Now that Xie has successfully been silenced, Chen said authorities are working to shut him up as well. Chen’s family was briefly detained in the southern province of Yunnan last week.
“Xie Yang lied and denied being tortured. That helped the Chinese government save face and, in return, the Chinese government would promise to let him keep his license. This is a trade-off,” Chen told VOA.
“Why are they after me? They are seeking revenge as I was the one who made public his allegations of torture,” which invited criticism from 11 countries, he added. [Source]
In the latest such reprisal, RFA reported that Chen’s oldest son has been barred from elementary school enrollment under police pressure.
While many of the detainees appear to have been effectively silenced, many family members continue to advocate for them, both within China and abroad. From VOA:
On Friday, Wang Qiaoling, the wife of prominent rights lawyer Li Heping, and other supporters filed a suit with the Supreme Court demanding an investigation into the police’s torture of Li as well as information surrounding the disappearance of another lawyer, Wang Quanzhang.
[…] Meanwhile, the Washington D.C.-based Congressional-Executive Commission on China has expressed alarm about what it called China’s continued assault against rights lawyers.
“If China persists in viewing its own citizens with suspicion and hostility and if it continues to ruthlessly disregard their most basic rights, it will never be viewed as a responsible global stakeholder,” the commission said in a statement.
“The international community needs to acknowledge that Xi Jinping’s increasingly severe suppression of internationally-recognized civil and political right has real implications for regional stability and bilateral cooperation,” it added. [Source]
Hong Kong Free Press’ Elson Tong reports that the wives of three other lawyers and missing Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che will testify at a U.S. congressional hearing on Thursday:
The four women are: Lee Ching-yu, wife of Taiwanese NGO worker Lee Ming-cheh; Chen Guiqiu, wife of rights lawyer Xie Yang; Jin Bianling, wife of ex-lawyer Jiang Tianyong; and Wang Yanfang, wife of lawyer Tang Jingling.
Their testimonies will be presented before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organisations. The witnesses will be hosted by Christian human rights NGO ChinaAid in Washington DC.
Congressman Ed Royce said the hearing aims to “examine the torture, disappearances, and detention of human rights lawyers and democracy advocates in China,” according to a press release from the NGO.
The three wives of the imprisoned Chinese rights lawyers are already living in the United States. While Jin Bianling relocated long before her husband was arrested last year, Chen Guiqiu was only confirmed to have arrived in Texas last week after escaping through Thailand. [Source]
According to reports, Chen and her children were nearly intercepted by Chinese agents in Thailand, but were able to escape with American consular and NGO assistance.