Beijing Formally Arrests Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang in Clampdown on Dissent
Originally published by The Wall Street Journal on June 13, 2014
BEIJING—Chinese police formally arrested a hard-charging rights lawyer on multiple criminal charges on Friday, making him the latest prominent target in a tightening clampdown on dissent.
Pu Zhiqiang faces charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” as well as illegal gathering of personal information, the Beijing police said in a short notice posted on one of its verified social media feeds. It said authorities were investigating Mr. Pu for other unspecified crimes.
The notice didn’t offer further details about Mr. Pu, who had been detained, though not formally arrested, since early May. Police couldn’t be reached for comment.
The picking-quarrels charge has been used to convict other activists in recent months, and formal arrest in China typically leads to prosecution and conviction.
Zhang Sizhi, Mr. Pu’s lawyer, said neither he nor Mr. Pu’s family had been notified of the formal arrest by police. He declined to comment further, citing the possibility police might bring other charges. “It’s still not clear what the final charges are.”
Mr. Pu’s arrest, while expected by some people in the rights community, was also surprising for someone who for years displayed an ability to straddle the government’s ever-shifting political red line. Mr. Pu represented some of China’s most outspoken dissidents, including the artist Ai Weiwei, and joined calls for political reform. Until now, given his high media profile, Mr. Pu had managed to stay out of prison, unlike many other rights lawyers.
His prominence, however, means the arrest is likely to have a chilling effect on other rights lawyers, said Teng Biao, a fellow rights lawyer and friend of Mr. Pu’s now based in Hong Kong. “They’re killing the monkey to scare the chickens,” Mr. Teng said, inferring that Mr. Pu is being used as an example to keep other rights lawyers in line.
A leader in the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Mr. Pu was detained by police last month, a day after he attended a small gathering to commemoratethe protests’ 25th anniversary. Preliminary charges of “picking quarrels” were filed against him two days later, after which police searched his home and office, confiscating files and computers, according to family and friends.
Supporters say they believe authorities had been building a case against Mr. Pu for some time and that they used the recent Tiananmen commemoration as a pretext. Several others who attended the meeting were detained but were released last week, after the June 4th anniversary of the military crackdown that ended the protests had passed.
Authorities also detained others associated with Mr. Pu: his niece and fellow lawyer, Qu Zhenhong, who was held on suspicion of illegally gathering personal information, and two Chinese journalists. The journalists have been released. Ms. Qu remains in custody.
Mr. Pu’s lawyer Mr. Zhang said it was likely Ms. Qu would also face formal criminal charges, since her case was linked with his client’s.
While public prominence sometimes shields government critics in China from punishment by authorities, Mr. Pu’s success and reputation became a liability, rights advocates said. The Communist Party leadership over the past year or so has begun arresting high-profile activists to prevent them from becoming too popular and challenging the government.
“This has to do with the fact that Pu has ‘mainstreamed’ his work and his persona from a Tiananmen student leader to a nationally and internationally respected and celebrated lawyer who crusaded for social justice,” said Renee Xia, a U.S.-based activist with the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
Supporters have raised concerns over the impact a lengthy detention could have on the health of Mr. Pu, who suffers from diabetes. “His health is deteriorating,” Mr. Zhang wrote earlier this week after visiting Mr. Pu at Beijing’s No. 1 Detention Center. He also quoted Mr. Pu as saying he had been subjected to daily interrogations, some lasting as long as 10 hours.
Mr. Zhang said his client was receiving medicine, though Ms. Xia raised questions about the quality of care. The detention center declined to comment on Mr. Pu’s case.
Write to Josh Chin at firstname.lastname@example.org