Two human rights lawyers who were detained as part of the “Black Friday” or “709” crackdown on lawyers and activists launched in July 2015 have been released. Li Heping was released from prison on Tuesday after being given a suspended sentence for subversion. Immediately after his sentence was announced in late April, rights groups and supporters expressed concern that he was still being held. Li’s time in detention appeared to take a dramatic physical toll on him. Tom Phillips of The Guardian reports:
On Tuesday afternoon, after almost two years languishing behind bars, Li finally emerged, having been secretly tried and handed a suspended sentence for “subversion of state power” at the end of last month.
Photographs and a brief video clip posted online showed the Christian attorney, now 46, being reunited with his wife and daughter, Wang Qiaoling and Li Jiamei, at their family home in Beijing.
“I have to say I didn’t recognise him in the [photo],” said Halliday, the author of a book on China’s human rights lawyers, who like many was disturbed at the toll incarceration appeared to have inflicted on his friend.
“[He looked] very thin. He’s aged about 20 years. His hair has gone grey. He’s gone through a torturous time, I would say,” Halliday added. “I would defy anybody … to imagine that so much transformation could have occurred over two years.”
“The only thing that I recognised was his smile: that wonderful smile of his that has always been a reflection of his warmth and his kindness.” [Source]
Chinese rights lawyer Li Heping , released after nearly two years in prison where hair had gone white, emotionally reunites with family. https://t.co/odgZEd8sWi
— Joanna Chiu 趙淇欣 (@joannachiu) May 9, 2017
So glad Li Heping release is real, for now. So sad he is scarcely recognizable, except for that unvanquished smile. @patrickpoon @SophieHRW https://t.co/nGYl9wZcJB
— Terry Halliday (@HallidayTerry) May 9, 2017
Photo of Li Heping with his younger brother, also recently released but now a vegetable because of drugs administered during his confinement https://t.co/BAHrhjrH4Q
— Jerome Cohen 孔傑榮(柯恩) (@jeromeacohen) May 10, 2017
Despite Li’s release, his family remains concerned that the government has not eased up on Li or his lawyer colleagues, several of whom remain in prison. From RFA:
[Li’s wife] Wang said she believes the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown on rights lawyers isn’t over yet.
“They wouldn’t release him and allow him to come home after the [suspended] sentencing, and they tried him in secret,” she said. “They wouldn’t allow him to meet with his own lawyer.”
“They broke the law in a lot of places in the past two years, and I think that the local governments involved should give us an explanation, but instead they are trying to shut us up,” Wang said.
The court said on its verified Weibo account that it had “decided not to proceed with an open trial, owing to the fact that the Li Heping case involved state secrets.” [Source]
Meanwhile, Xie Yang, another lawyer who has been detained since 2015, pleaded guilty in a trial last week, and was subsequently and unexpectedly released on bail before a verdict was announced. Before his release, he was shown on state TV confessing and denying earlier statements saying he had been tortured in prison. Xie’s lawyer, Chen Jiangang, who had helped him release details about his treatment in prison, was also detained last week. Catherine Lai at Hong Kong Free Press reports on Xie’s confession:
He admitted to being brainwashed overseas during the trial, the court said on its Weibo microblogging account. According to video posted by the court, when asked if his rights were protected during the investigation and in the legal process, Xie said “yes, fully protected,” and when asked if he had been tortured, he said: “no.”
Xie previously claimed police used “sleep deprivation, long interrogations, beatings, death threats [and] humiliations” against him, according to a detailed transcript published by his lawyers.
Following the opening of the trial, the “interview” was published online by the Changsha Broadcast and Television Group, a party-controlled Hunan TV station.
The channel also posted a handwritten note purporting to be authored by Xie on Tuesday, stating that he had been released on bail after the hearing. It stated that he made his statement in court and accepted the interview of his own accord. It also declared an affidavit Xie signed on January 13 with his lawyer invalid. The affidavit said that, if he was to appear on TV or at a trial making a confession, it must be either the result of torture or a compromise made in exchange for being reunited with his family. [Source]
During the crackdown on lawyers, authorities have repeatedly forced detainees to make public “confessions” in the media, often before they are tried or even charged.
Xie’s wife, Chen Guiqiu, told Radio Free Asia that her husband is still under tight surveillance and his current whereabouts are unknown. Chen is now applying for asylum in the United States after a dramatic escape through Thailand with her two daughters, which involved detention in a Thai jail and a confrontation at the airport between Thai, U.S., and Chinese officials. U.S. officials aided the family because Xie’s youngest daughter is a U.S. citizen by birth. From AFP:
Chen said she can’t say what happened after the airport standoff, because of “diplomatic sensitivities”, but confirmed they arrived safely in Texas on March 17.
Now, Chen and her older daughter have started the process to seek asylum in America.
“We have a lawyer. … We met with staff from the Trump administration, who were very supportive,” Chen said.
Chen’s four-year-old daughter is an American citizen by birth. Her nationality meant the US was exercising a legitimate consular role in staging the dramatic intervention.
“It’s a problem only if the Chinese government chooses to see it that way. It’s normal and indeed obligatory for the US and other governments to assist citizens in distress,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for New York-based Human Rights Watch. [Source]
The Washington Post has published an editorial calling on the Trump administration speak up on behalf of imprisoned rights lawyers.