A prominent Chinese human rights lawyer who was jailed following his advocacy for human rights and the rule of law has been named a finalist for a prominent human rights award, the same week that reports emerged of his poor health. The news on the health of Yu Wensheng, who is serving a four year sentence for ‘inciting subversion,’ came after his wife was unexpectedly granted permission to briefly speak to him via video call for the first time in three years. Sharing news of his condition, Yu’s wife Xu Yan reported that chronic trembling in Yu’s arm meant he could no longer write using his right hand, and that he had had three teeth pulled while in detention. Yu was detained and stripped of his law license in early 2018 after publishing open letters calling for political reform and Xi Jinping’s dismissal. Authorities later released edited video footage in an apparent attempt to discredit Yu, and produced a handwritten note in which he appeared to dismiss his defense lawyers, despite having previously vowed he would not freely do so.
Freelance journalist William Yang reported on Xu’s meeting with her husband, which followed years of personal campaigning by Xu:
When the meeting began, Xu saw Yu sit on a chair and dressed in a blue jumpsuit. His head was shaved and he was handcuffed. His face is a little pale and he seemed a bit malnourished. Xu said the scene made her very “sad and angry,” because Yu’s current state is very different from his professional image in the past.
[…] “I told him I would continue to advocate for his rights and me and our son both miss him and love him very much,” she said. “Every time I said I love him, he would respond by telling me how grateful he was. In fact, I wished he had said he loved me, he missed me or he was sorry that I had to endure all the hardship. These were the things that he used to say to me.”
[…] Xu also asked Yu if the detention center has implanted new tooth for him, and Yu said they hadn’t done that for him. Xu worries that his other teeth could also become loose if the detention center doesn’t perform dental implant for him soon. “I told him to choose a good dental treatment and if the government is unwilling to pay for the implant, I can pay for it,” Xu said.
Before the meeting was over, Xu gave Yu a thumbs up through the video and she also made a heart with her arms. Yu responded by forming a heart with his arms. “After I blew a kiss towards the video, the video froze while he tried to smile back at me,” Xu said. “Since I haven’t seen him in three years, I wasn’t able to hug him in person during this meeting. I will demand to meet him in person in the future.” [Source]
Also last week, organizers of the Martin Ennals Award announced that Yu was one of three finalists for the top human rights prize. The winner is selected by a panel of 10 leading human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Chinese authorities have staged continuous efforts to prosecute human rights lawyers and their legal representatives over the last several years. A former corporate lawyer, Yu gave up his career to work on human rights and public interest cases. In 2017, he was one of five lawyers who launched an unprecedented legal case to sue the governments of Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei for failing to protect citizens from air pollution.
Yu was also known for representing another human rights lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, who was arrested alongside 300 other legal professionals and activists in the 709 crackdown in 2015. Yu’s own legal representative, Lu Siwei, had his license to practice law stripped by a court last week over allegations that he had endangered national security by tweeting about the Hong Kong 12, a development that would likely complicate Yu’s efforts to appeal his four year sentence.
The international community has not stayed silent.
— ISHR (@ISHRglobal) January 19, 2021
China’s campaign to prosecute rights lawyers was one aspect of what made 2020 the worst year for China’s rights movement since 1989, according to Human Rights Watch. It is noteworthy that a small group of lawyers, diminishing in number, have been involved in so many of the high-profile rights cases in the last year. In addition to representing Yu in his appeals process, recently debarred Lu Siwei also represented lawyer-turned-citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who was recently sentenced to four years in prison for her reporting on the Wuhan lockdown in the early days of China’s COVID-19 epidemic.
Other remaining rights lawyers have likewise been punished for their involvement in sensitive cases. Ren Quanniu, who also volunteered to represent the 12 Hong Kongers who were caught fleeing the city by boat to Taiwan, faces a hearing this week where his debarment for similar reasons to Lu’s is all but assured. Ren and Lu have received particular attention in the Hong Kong media in light of their involvement in the Hong Kong 12 case. This week, Hong Kong media outlet Stand News published an interview in Chinese with Ren, in which he reflected on being a lawyer in the current political environment:
Regarding the outcome of losing his license, he smiles softly. Most of his rights protection cases have been defeats. Ren believes that in recent years, rather than talking about what help he’s done, it’d be better to say he’s done his duty to walk alongside society’s disadvantaged. “I think that as a lawyer in an ever deteriorating environment, I did the best that I could. With regard to my legal qualifications, this certificate has already lived up to its honor. What happens in the future is just a matter of a change in lifestyle” [Source]