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China Backtracked On Human Rights, Detained Nearly 1000 Activists In The Last Year

Protesters carry placards with photos of legal scholar Xu Zhiyong past barriers outside the Chinese liaison office during a demonstration against a Chinese court’’s Jan. 2014 decision to sentence him to four years in prison. CREDIT: AP
Protesters carry placards with photos of legal scholar Xu Zhiyong past barriers outside the Chinese liaison office during a demonstration against a Chinese court’’s Jan. 2014 decision to sentence him to four years in prison. CREDIT: AP

Cao Shunli, one of China’s foremost human rights’ defenders, was formally charged in Oct. 2013 with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” By then, she had already been detained for a month for staging a sit-ins at Foreign Ministry to demand that the public be allowed to contribute to a national report on human rights. Despite her deteriorating health and appeals from the international community and rights’ organizations to release the longtime activist, Cao was not released. She was sent to a hospital only after she suffered organ failure in February. Her family and lawyers maintain that her death in March can be blamed on her the Chinese authorities who detained her. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has vehemently the charge, saying that Cao’s “lawful rights and interests have been protected in accordance with law.”

“No matter how the government explains it, the fact that Cao Shunli died because she was not given medical treatment in time cannot be denied,” Liu Weiguo, one of Cao’s lawyers told AFP.

Cao was one of nearly 1,000 human rights defenders detained by Chinese authorities for “peacefully exercising their rights” last year, and one of three to die due to a lack of medical attention while detained, according to a report released by an advocacy group on Monday.

The advocacy coalition Chinese Human Rights Defenders noted that in 2014, Chinese authorities detained nearly twice the number of human rights activists than the past two years combined, and accused President Xi Jinping’s government of setting China’s “worst record of human rights violations since the mid-1990s.”

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“Since Xi came to power,” the report stated, “Authorities have pursued a relentless and ruthless assault on fundamental liberties to tighten the stranglehold on the rapidly shrinking space of civil society, targeting human rights defenders, the messengers of human rights.”

More human rights activists were arrested in 2014 than in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Massacre during which, the report stated, “[A]ctivists, lawyers, journalists, and liberal intellectuals were locked up, put under house arrest, blocked from speaking out, or essentially forced into exile abroad.”

While Chinese officials abandoned the practice of harvesting the organs of executed prisoners for transplants and announced an end to its harsh “re-education through labor” programs, China has ramped up other abuses such as extrajudicial detention facilities, or “black sites.” The report notes that although the Supreme People’s Court banned evidence illegally obtained and confessions extracted from torture, the reforms have yet to be be implemented.

The report also cited dozens of examples of the detentions of political and social activists. They include Xu Zhiyong who was sentenced to four years in prison in Jan. 2014 for “gathering a crowd to disturb public order” in order to promote education among rural children and demand increased transparency from the government. In September, a Uighur scholar was sentenced to life in prison for separatism, though he did not advocate for independence for his ethnic minority group, but rather coexistence within China. Three months later, seven of his students were also sentenced and imprisoned. In October, Beijing police arrested the poet Wang Zang and seven others at a poetry reading in support of protesters in Hong Kong.

Citing these cases and many more, the report’s authors offered a damning assessment of crushing dissent through illegal means: “[President] Xi has spearheaded an ideological shift that harkens back to the Maoist era.”