China Frees Wang Yu, Human Rights Lawyer, After Videotaped Confession

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Originally published by The New York Times on August 1, 2016

BEIJING — A prominent lawyer jailed as part of a crackdown on human rights lawyers in China has been released from detention, according to news reports on Monday, even as her colleagues suggested that a videotaped confession she had offered had probably been coerced.

The lawyer, Wang Yu, was detained last year as part of a campaign by President Xi Jinping to weaken a burgeoning human rights movement, which the ruling Communist Party views as a threat to its grip on power.

In a televised confession on Monday, Ms. Wang, a leading figure in the movement, delivered a scathing rebuke of her profession, accusing colleagues of pursuing wealth and fame and suggesting that foreign activists were conspiring to smear the Chinese government.

“I won’t be used by them anymore,” Ms. Wang said in a video posted by The Paper, a news site controlled by the Communist Party.

The video mimicked the style of several recent confessions broadcast by the state news media, in which activists, publishers and lawyers offer admissions of guilt that seem to be aimed at discouraging dissent. Critics of the government have questioned the authenticity of the confessions, dismissing them as propaganda tools that were probably obtained by force.

In a sign that Mr. Xi’s crackdown on lawyers is not waning, the authorities moved forward on Monday with trials for several of Ms. Wang’s colleagues, including Zhou Shifeng, the director of a law firm at the center of the government’s campaign, accusing them of subverting state power.

Foreign diplomats and activists harshly criticized Beijing’s decision to prosecute Mr. Zhou and his colleagues and demanded that the detained lawyers be allowed to consult with lawyers. Family members held a small demonstration on Monday outside a court in Tianjin, a city not far from Beijing where the lawyers are being held.

The United States Embassy in Beijing said in a statement that the charges against the lawyers were vague and “politically motivated.”

“The United States remains concerned by the Chinese government’s continuing efforts to harass, intimidate and prosecute defense lawyers and human rights activists for their work,” the statement said.

Calls to the court in Tianjin on Monday were not answered.

Mr. Xi, who has moved aggressively to contain dissent during his nearly four years in power, has shown a disdain for rights lawyers, who include many who make it their mission to challenge the state’s influence on the lives of everyday citizens. Last year, the government rounded up nearly 250 lawyers and their associates in one of the most concerted attacks on the profession in decades.

At least 16 lawyers and activists are still being held by the authorities and are awaiting trials, according to Patrick Poon, a China researcher for Amnesty International based in Hong Kong.

Ms. Wang, 45, is known as a pugnacious lawyer with a penchant for controversy. She represented Ilham Tohti, an advocate for China’s Uighur ethnic minority who is serving a life sentence on charges of separatism. She also helped defend a group of feminists who were detained last year for organizing a campaign against sexual harassment on public transit.

In January, the authorities formally arrested Ms. Wang and accused her of subverting state power. Her husband, Bao Longjun, faced a slightly lesser charge, though he is still in detention. Their son,Bao Zhuoxuan, lives under surveillance with Ms. Wang’s mother in northern China.

Ms. Wang’s supporters said they feared that she would be under police supervision and investigation for years, even though she had been released on bail.

“She might be on bail outside prison, but she is clearly still detained, with no free access to family, friends and under strict surveillance,” said Renee Xia, a spokeswoman for Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group.

In her confession, which appeared on the website of a Hong Kong news site known as Oriental Press, in addition to several party-controlled outlets, Ms. Wang criticized her former employer, the Fengrui law firm, and said she regretted making “improper” remarks in interviews with foreign journalists.

She pledged not to accept awards from foreign organizations for her advocacy, saying, “I am Chinese, and I only accept the Chinese government’s leadership.” (The American Bar Association recently announced that it would give Ms. Wang an international human rights award.)

Wen Donghai, a lawyer for Ms. Wang, said he had not spoken with her since the video was released but suspected that the confession was not genuine.

“She was like a pupil reciting an essay in front of a teacher,” he said in an interview. “Not a single word is missing from the script.”

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