Activists' long detention prompts fears of torture

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2011, 12:00am

The mainland authorities' crackdown on activists and rights lawyers over the past few weeks has reached an unprecedented level, stoking fears that some could be subjected to torture in custody, rights groups say.

The crackdown began about three weeks ago, shortly after an anonymous online call urged people to rally in large mainland cities to emulate the 'jasmine revolution' in the Arab world.

Six well-known human rights lawyers, including Teng Biao, Jiang Tianyong, Tang Jitian and Tang Jingling, have been detained at undisclosed locations without charge, their colleagues say. At least 20 activists - including Ran Yunfei, Chen Wei and Li Hai - have been detained for alleged crimes such as subversion and endangering state security, and at least 150 have been subjected to various forms of detention, according to rights group China Human Rights Defenders.

'It is clear that the crackdown has reached unprecedented levels - the threshold that warrants detention by the police has been dramatically lowered,' said Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. 'Now we have entered the most serious wave of political repression.'

The unusually harsh treatment of lawyers and activists appeared to be an act of revenge, he said. 'The criminalisation of internet commentary seems to indicate that security forces have been given free rein to crack down on any perceived threat, also they are using it to settle some scores with long-standing critics of the government.'

Renee Xia, international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said the authorities' increasing use of extralegal measures against activists, such as enforced disappearances, was alarming. She said the number of people detained on criminal charges or who had simply disappeared was 'the highest in recent years'.

'Those who have been taken away by police and vanished without a trace are most likely to be subjected to torture to extract confession,' she said.

Liu Wei, a rights lawyer who had her licence revoked along with Tang Jitian last year after defending members of the banned Falun Gong sect, said the disappearance of colleagues had a chilling effect on lawyers.

'We feel insecure ... that kind of arbitrary arrest has given rise to a sense of uncertainty,' she said.

Teng Biao's wife said that although her husband had been detained for short periods previously, his long disappearance this time seemed to indicate a more severe ordeal. Teng vanished on February 19, after police summoned him. He, Jiang and Tang Jitian were among a group of lawyers who met three days earlier to discuss the case of Chen Guangcheng, a blind rights advocate who is under house arrest in Shandong .

'This time it's different - it's the length of time, and we don't know where he is, what he has done ... it feels quite serious,' said Wang Ling.

Meanwhile, the arrests are continuing, with the latest confirmed case being the criminal detention of Twitter user Guo Weidong, who is accused of 'inciting subversion'. His friend Zhai Minglu, said he did not understand why Guo was detained as he did not approve of the so-called jasmine rallies.

'My friends on Twitter ... just disappear suddenly, the sense of repression is stifling,' Guo tweeted last Thursday, just hours before he himself was taken away.

Like Guo, many detained activists do not appear to be connected to the rally calls and have done nothing more than post Twitter comments related to the 'jasmine revolution'.

The authorities have deployed thousands of police and security guards in Beijing, Shanghai and dozens of other cities on the past four Sundays - even though there were no obvious protests.