Chen Guangcheng

Relatives of 16 prisoners urge Obama to seek their release

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 June, 2013, 4:04am

Relatives of prisoners in China have asked US President Barack Obama to urge Xi Jinping to free 16 inmates, saying human rights should be a priority at their tone-setting summit.

Xi was holding his first talks with Obama yesterday since taking office. Both sides say that the meeting at a secluded resort in the California desert is aimed at building chemistry between the two leaders.

"This summit is not only about personal friendship building. It's a summit between the presidents of two countries and they should have a purpose to build a more just society," said Chen Guangcheng, the blind self-taught lawyer who dramatically escaped house arrest for the US embassy in Beijing last year. "Obama should stop the trade-centred diplomacy and instead make it a human rights-centred diplomacy," said Chen, who studies in New York.

While activists routinely call on the US to prioritise human rights, advocacy groups are trying a more concerted effort by drawing up a list of 16 prisoners and urging Obama to press for their freedom. They plan to roll out wristbands and other mementos for the "China 16" initiative in hopes of building pressure to free the prisoners, who together have been sentenced to four life terms plus 165 years.

The 16 prisoners include Chen's nephew Chen Kegui , who was imprisoned and allegedly beaten in what activists say was retaliation by authorities in eastern Shandong who felt humiliated by his uncle's flight. Other prominent names include Gao Zhisheng , a lawyer who has allegedly faced severe physical abuse after defending unpopular causes, and Liu Xiaobo , the jailed Nobel Peace laureate who wrote a bold manifesto for reform. Another prisoner, Peng Ming, was a reform-minded former official living in exile whose family say he was kidnapped in 2004 in Thailand when he tried to set up a haven for Chinese defectors and was targeted by the secret police.

Other prisoners on the list include the dissidents or reformists Guo Quan, Liu Xianbin, Wang Bingzhang, Yang Tianshui, Zhu Yufu and Li Chang. The list also features two Tibetan prisoners, the monk Tenzin Delek and Lobsang Tsering; two Uygurs, Gulmira Imin and Alimujiang Yimiti, and the underground church leader Yang Rongli.