Human Rights Activists in China Locked Up For Speaking Out

October 18, 2010

China expressed outrage over the Nobel committee’s decision to award its prestigious Peace Prize to incarcerated Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo.  But the real outrage is China’s treatment of those who dare to speak truth to power.

Liu is just one of many Chinese human rights activists who currently languish in jail in the country (you can take action for Liu here). They are prisoners of conscience, jailed solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

The human rights movement in China is growing, but those who attempt to report on human rights violations or challenge government policies face serious risk of abuse. The authorities make frequent use of vaguely-worded charges to silence and imprison peaceful activists, such as “subversion of state power” (the charge which gave Liu a 11-year sentence), “endangering state security” and “separatism”.

Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, became another victim of this crackdown when she was placed under house arrest after she returned home from visiting Liu in prison after he had won the Nobel prize.  She joins other prominent Chinese activists who have been targeted for daring to criticize the government.  Below we profile five human rights defenders currently locked up in China for speaking out.

Liu Xianbin, 43
Detained since 28 June in Suining Province, Sichuan

Liu XianbinThe prominent Sichuan democracy activist has been held on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” since being seized by security officers at his home four months ago. Local human rights activists believe he is being punished for his activism and defence of human rights. Liu was first imprisoned in 1992 for his participation in the 1989 pro-democracy movement. In 1998, he co-founded the Sichuan branch of the China Democracy Party. The following year, he was sentenced to 13 years in jail for “subversion of state power”. After his release in November 2008 he continued to speak out against the Chinese government. He was a prominent supporter, together with Liu Xiaobo, of Charter 08, a proposal for fundamental legal and political reform in China that aims to achieve a democratic system that respects human rights. He has also published articles on human rights and democracy and worked to increase public awareness of other persecuted activists. Liu is currently awaiting trial.

Gao Zhisheng, 46
Currently “missing”

Gao ZhishengIn 2001, Gao Zhisheng was named one of China’s “top 10 lawyers” by the Ministry of Justice. But since his human rights advocacy angered the authorities, he and his family have seen their lives torn apart. After Gao Zhisheng wrote a series of “Open letters for Justice” in late 2005 calling on China’s leaders to stop the persecution of the spiritual group Falun Gong, he lost his lawyer’s licence and he and his family faced constant harrassment by security forces.

In early 2006, he organized a hunger strike to draw attention to human rights abuses and later that year  received a suspended three-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion”, with one year deprivation of political rights. The authorities have kept Gao Zhisheng and his family under constant surveillance ever since.

On 13 September 2007, Gao Zhisheng wrote an open letter to the US Congress saying he did not support the country’s staging of the 2008 Olympics. Nine days later, plainclothes police officers came to his home, stripped him naked and beat him unconscious. He was held incommunicado for nearly six weeks and subjected to beatings and repeated electric shocks to his genitals. After he was released his acquaintances described him as “a broken man”.
Gao’s children have been prevented from attending school and his family’s bank accounts have been frozen. His daughter attempted suicide as a result of the pressure and his family were forced to flee China in March. Gao was taken from his home in Shaanxi Province by police on 4 February 2009 and his current whereabouts are unknown.

Tan Zuoren, 56
Serving a five-year prison sentence

Tan ZuorenAn environmental activist who was arrested after he tried to publicize the number of children that died during the Sichuan earthquake and the corruption behind substandard construction that contributed to their deaths. Tan has been repeatedly questioned by the police about his human rights work. He was also harassed by unidentified men who twice stole his computer and also stabbed and injured his dog.

He was arrested in March 2009 after he declared his intention to release an independent report on the collapse of school buildings during the quake. Although the initial indictment focused on his work on the earthquake, Tan was ultimately convicted for his commemoration of the crackdown on 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, on charges of “inciting subversion of state power”.

Acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei was prevented from giving evidence at Tan’s trial when he was detained and severely beaten by security officials just before he was due to testify. Amnesty International described the trial as “grossly unfair” and “politically motivated”. In June, Tan’s appeal against his five-year sentence was rejected after a court session lasting just 10 minutes.

Hairat Niyaz
Serving a 15-year prison sentence in an unknown location, held incommunicado

Hairat Niyaz The Uighur journalist and website editor was convicted on charges of “endandering state security” in the wake of riots in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province, in July 2009, for essays he had written prior to the protests and for interviews he gave to Hong Kong journalists. His warning to the Chinese authorities of the threat of ethnic violence in the region the day prior to the protests in Urumqi, which claimed the lives of at least 197 people, went unheeded.

Prior to his imprisonment Hairat Niyaz was an administrator of Uighurbiz, one of the websites accused of promoting the Urumqi unrest. He had also worked as a senior journalist with several leading newspapers in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in north-west China (where the Uighur ethnic group largely reside). He deliberately uses the Chinese language to report on Uighur issues to better reach Chinese-speaking domestic and overseas audiences.
Niyaz was arrested in October 2009 after police said he had “given too many interviews”. In these interviews, he criticised the authorities’ “bilingual” education” policy that he claimed had led to many Uighur teachers being laid off. He argued that the disturbances in the region were caused by 20 years of discriminatory ethnic policies. Niyaz was sentenced to 15 years in jail in July. It is not known where he is imprisoned.

Dhondup Wangchen, 36
Serving a six-year sentence in Xining, Qinghai province

Dhondup WangchenThe Tibetan filmmaker picked up a video camera for the first time in his life when he began making the documentary Leaving Fear Behind.  The film, shot in the wake of the 2008 unrest in Tibet, featured interviews with more than 100 Tibetans about human rights problems in the region.

In March 2008, footage from the film was smuggled out of China and soon afterwards, Dhondup Wangchen was detained. He was tortured and held without charge for over a year before being sentenced in a secret trial to six years imprisonment for “inciting separatism”. Dhondup Wangchen suffers from Hepatitis B, for which he is not being treated.

An edited version of Leaving Fear Behind was shown to foreign journalists in Beijing just days before the Olympic Games in August 2008. Chinese security forces interrupted the screening.