“Too Risky to Call Ourselves Defenders”: Annual Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China (2015)Comments Off on “Too Risky to Call Ourselves Defenders”: Annual Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China (2015)
(Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders – February 16, 2016) – In 2015, Chinese authorities’ persecution of human rights defenders followed a trajectory of increasing severity and prevalence that has become a hallmark of President Xi Jinping’s three-year leadership, says CHRD in its annual report for 2015, “Too Risky to Call Ourselves Defenders”: CHRD Annual Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in China. Government authorities escalated the relentless assaults on fundamental liberties, further tightened the stranglehold on expression, reduced the already contracted space for civil society, and utilized hard-nosed methods to rein in human rights defenders (HRDs).
2015 will go down in history as the year that Chinese authorities launched an unprecedented attack on China’s human rights lawyers. In July, police questioned more than 300 lawyers and activists and put many of them under secret detention. Today, 22 lawyers and activists remain in custody from this crackdown, and 19 of these have been formally arrested, including 16 in January 2016. Of the 19 arrested, all but three face “political” charges of “subversion” or “inciting subversion of state power,” serious political charges.
Prompting alarmed reactions and criticism from inside and outside the country, the Xi leadership pushed for draconian laws to legitimize the escalating persecution of HRDs as well as political and religious dissenters, especially in restive ethnic minority regions. These include the National Security Law passed in July and the Ninth Amendment to the Criminal Law issued in August, which have already been used by authorities to punish the exercise of basic liberties.
In this ninth annual report on the situation of HRDs in China, CHRD focuses on developments related to three basic rights necessary for anyone striving to defend and promote human rights: the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression. Given that HRDs have continued to be subjected to torture as a major form of reprisal, and that a UN treaty body, the Committee against Torture, reviewed China in 2015, this report also devotes a section on the prevalence of torture and the problem of impunity for torturers.
- Freedom of Association: The crackdown against lawyers launched in July was, at least in part, an attempt to break up the increasingly influential—and completely self-organized—“China Human Rights Lawyers Group” (中国人权律师团). Authorities also blocked HRDs from traveling to UN human rights activities and retaliated against them for associating with the international human rights community. In May, the National People’s Congress introduced the draft Overseas NGO Management Law, which, if enacted as is, would restrict how foreign-based groups in China can support and cooperate with independent Chinese NGOs, which already face harassment and funding shortages due to government regulations.
- Freedom of Peaceful Assembly: The Chinese government exerted greater control over the remaining public space for HRDs to peacefully assemble or demonstrate in 2015, when dozens of HRDs were detained, put on trial, or imprisoned for exercising this right. Legislators passed an amendment to the Criminal Law meant to punish those who “organize” or “fund” public gatherings (Criminal Law, Article 290). While thousands of demonstrations continue to take place spontaneously in China, HRDs are categorically denied permission to hold public rallies.
- Freedom of Expression: The government further diminished the space for free expression. The Xi leadership appears to have adopted a zero-tolerance strategy to rein in political expression, speech critical of government policies, and information-sharing about human rights. Under the pretext of “anti-terrorism” efforts and “protecting national security,” China introduced the draft National Cyber Security Law in July, and amendments to the Criminal Law that went into effect on November 1, 2015, codify the criminalization of lawyers’ speech during trials.
- Torture and other forms of mistreatment: Torture and ill-treatment or cruel punishment in China remain rampant and worrisome, and authorities have continued to use many forms of torture against HRDs. In 2015, the UN Committee against Torture reviewed China’s implementation of its treaty obligations under the Torture Convention. However, police have largely ignored this treaty as well as newly amended laws. The persistent use of torture is, in part, a consequence of the impunity enjoyed by torturers, including police and other state agents.
To place the situation of HRDs in 2015 in perspective, this report presents some statistical information on their persecution, based on cases documented by at-risk groups and activists inside China. Among our findings for 2015 are:
- Authorities extensively resorted to criminal detention and forced disappearance as major tools of retaliation against HRDs. Among those lawyers and activists seized in the July police operations, 26 were either criminally detained or put under “residential surveillance” in police-designated locations for six months or longer without having access to their lawyers or having their whereabouts disclosed to families.
- Compared to data available in the previous three years, our documentation shows that there were more cases in 2015 of HRDs detained for “political” crimes, including “subversion of state power” and “inciting subversion of state power.” Twenty-two HRDs were detained for “inciting subversion” in 2015—matching the recorded total for the three previous years combined. CHRD documented 11 cases of HRDs arrested on suspicion of “subversion” in January 2016 alone, a number surpassing the documented numbers from 2012-2014 put together.
- More than 700 HRDs in 2015 were arbitrarily detained for at least five days—deprived of their liberty of movement in retaliation for their exercise or advocacy for human rights. While this number is smaller than the 952 cases that CHRD documented in 2014—likely due to less access to information than in previous years—but developments point to an overall escalation of persecution against HRDs in 2015, including longer average detention times and greater severity of criminal charges.
- More than 100 HRDs spent part or all of 2015 under prolonged pre-trial detention. As of the release of this report, some of these HRDs remain in detention without a trial or still await verdicts, while others have been released or convicted and imprisoned. In some cases, detainees have been held for more than two-and-a-half years, which means that they have been punished and deprived of their liberty for a significant period of time without any judicial review.
In releasing this report, CHRD urges the Chinese government to:
- End criminal prosecution of and release all HRDs deprived of their liberty for advocating for human rights protection or for exercising their basic rights;
- Cease politicizing challenges to unlawful state practices as well as efforts to promote human rights;
- End the practice of unreasonably prolonged pre-trial detention;
- Repeal Article 73 of the Criminal Procedure Law allowing for “residential surveillance” in locations designated by police, and put an end to “forced disappearances”; and
- Allow civil society participation in UN human rights activities, and end harassment of and reprisals against citizens who seek to engage in such activities.