Human rights in China

Wives of detained Chinese lawyers appeal for US help

The women tell a congressional hearing in Washington of torture, and ask President Donald Trump to take up their cases with China

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 May, 2017, 11:52am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 May, 2017, 11:52am

Wives of Chinese human rights lawyers who have been detained by the authorities called on Washington to press Beijing to free detainees and end the use of torture in a unique joint appearance at a congressional hearing on Thursday.

Four women appeared in person at the hearing and two others spoke in a pre-recorded video messages. All those who had been able to contact their husbands said the men had suffered harsh treatment in detention, including torture.

It is doubtful their appeals will gain traction with President Donald Trump, who has dialled back US human rights criticism of China while seeking its cooperation on trade and North Korea.

Trump also has shifted from an initially confrontational stance on the touchy issue of Taiwan, which China regards as part of its territory. Taiwan split from the mainland in 1949 and is self-governing.

The hearing was chaired by Republican Chris Smith, an arch-critic of Beijing. It focused on the plight of around 250 lawyers and legal assistants detained in a 2015 crackdown. Most were released, but four were convicted on charges of subversion and a dozen others remain detained, and are likely to face trial, Smith said.

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Among the women testifying in person was Chen Guiqiu, who fled to the US with her two daughters in March after publicising an account of how her lawyer husband, Xie Yang, was tortured in custody with repeated beatings, starvation and dehydration.

Authorities last week released Xie after nearly two years in detention. But Chen said Xie has not regained his freedom. He is on bail and “national security agents follow him wherever he goes,” she said.

Also released was lawyer Li Heping. His wife, Wang Qiaoling, said in a video message that when Li came out he “looked 20 years older and was extremely skinny.” During custody, Wang said, her husband spent a whole month shackled with handcuffs and fetters that prevented him from standing up straight.

In testimony to the hearing, Jin Bianling said her husband, Jiang Tianyong, a disbarred lawyer who spoke out against a government crackdown on dozens of rights activists in 2015, had been prevented from seeing a lawyer for nearly six months.

She said she got news on May 12 that he had been tortured and his legs were too swollen to allow him to walk.

Earlier on Thursday, Chinese police released a video of Jiang to refute allegations he had been tortured.

Wang Yanfeng, the wife of democracy campaigner Tang Jingling, who is serving a five-year prison sentence for subversion, also testified.

Smith condemned what he called Chinese President Xi Jinping’s effort to “eviscerate” a network of human rights lawyers as he tightens his grip on power. He said a new US human rights law should be used to impose sanctions on Chinese officials complicit in torturing detainees.

Smith stressed the need for Trump to take a tough line with Beijing and told the women: “He needs to look you in the eyes so that when he looks Xi Jinping in the eyes, he has your husbands’ and your interests right there, front and centre.”

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Another who testified was Li Wenzu, the wife of Wang Quanzhang. Wang had defended members of the Falun Gong meditation sect that is banned in China, and was charged with subversion last year. Li said in the video that her husband is being held without access to family or lawyers and she doesn’t know “whether he is still alive.”

Lawmakers also heard from the wife of the first Taiwanese activist in years to be detained in China on security charges. The case has inflamed already high tensions between China and Taiwan.

Lee Chin-yu pleaded for the US government to pressure China to free her husband, Lee Ming-che, who was detained on March 19 during a visit to the mainland. He has previously conducted online lectures on Taiwan’s democratisation and managed a fund for families of political prisoners in China.

His wife argued that the Taiwan Relations Act means Washington must “preserve and enhance the human rights of the people of Taiwan.” The law guides US policy toward the island.

Additional reporting by Reuters