Dissident voices must be heard

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 September, 2011, 12:00am


The silence that followed the release from secret detention of mainland rights advocates hinted at what they had gone through at the hands of authorities. Lawyer Jiang Tianyong has shed light on the torture, fear and intimidation by detailing his two-month ordeal this year. He has shown courage in doing so despite signing pledges to end his activism and warnings about the consequences. With public debate set to end soon on amendments to the criminal law that include a provision to make such unconstitutional detention legal, he chose a good time to speak out.

Jiang is among dozens of lawyers, rights activists and bloggers detained by authorities in the wake of the 'jasmine revolutions' in the Arab world. The central government, in its eagerness to keep a lid on like-minded protesters, noticeably stepped up surveillance of meeting places, the internet and mobile phone networks. To 'disappear' those perceived as troublemakers was once the exception, but has increasingly become the rule. We cannot say the beatings, threats, insults and brainwashing that the lawyer described are typical treatment for those who have been held, but there is no question that such actions are illegal. The authorities wish to change this. Suspects not formally charged can presently be put under house arrest for six months. The proposed amendment would give police powers in some circumstances to hold people in a secret location for six months without access by lawyers, family or friends. Public debate on this proposal, allowed by the National People's Congress, finishes at the end of the month and the revised law could be passed as early as March.

The amendment is framed in terms of protecting state security and fighting corruption and terrorism, concerns for all governments. But Jiang and others secretly detained with little or no legal explanation are working for the good of society, not against it. They champion basic rights such as freedom of expression, an open and fair judicial system, a free media and political reform. They are ideals leaders have vowed to strive for, yet when advocated in public forums the people raising them are at risk of intimidation and even disappearance. Lawyers are especially important in establishing the rule of law and should not be punished simply for doing their job. Everyone, no matter what they have done, is entitled to legal representation.

China has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty, but it is no coincidence that the world's wealthiest nations have the freest people. Only by assuring basic rights can there be open debate, free thinking and genuine research. Without Jiang and others deemed dissidents, the nation cannot grow or thrive. Silencing them engenders corruption, abuse of power and misrule. Their voices must be heard.