Trump hits former Chinese police officer with sanctions over death in custody of activist Cao Shunli

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Originally published by South China Morning Post on October 22, 2017

The United States has slapped sanctions on a former Chinese public security official over the death of an activist in custody, the first time the administration of US President Donald Trump has taken specific action in response to human rights abuses in China.

Gao Yan, former police chief of Beijing’s Chaoyang district, was one of 13 perpetrators or enablers of human rights violations and corruption around the world targeted by the sanctions, which Trump authorised with an executive order on Thursday.

But activists said Washington was still not doing enough to tackle Beijing on human rights, an issue Trump has avoided during his meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, including their summit in Beijing last month.

The US Treasury Department, which administers the sanctions, said Gao was targeted over the mistreatment of veteran activist Cao Shunli, who died in custody in 2014 after being denied medical care on Gao’s watch.

Cao was detained at Beijing’s international airport in September 2013, while trying to board a flight to Geneva for a rights training programme. During the next six months in custody, the authorities rejected her family and lawyer’s repeated requests for treatment for her tuberculosis. She eventually fell into a coma and was rushed to a Beijing hospital before dying in March 2014.

According to his public profile, Gao was appointed the Communist Party chief of the Beijing People’s Police College late last year. The college did not respond to a request for comment.

The US sanctions were authorised under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, a law passed last year that empowers the Treasury Department to target people anywhere for human rights violations and corruption.

Other individuals covered by the sanctions include Myanmese General Maung Maung Soe, who oversaw the crackdown against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority this year.

The sanctions block the targeted individuals’ assets under US jurisdiction and bar most Americans from any kind of financial transaction with them.

“Today, the United States is taking a strong stand against human rights abuse and corruption globally by shutting these bad actors out of the US financial system. Treasury is freezing their assets and publicly denouncing the egregious acts they’ve committed, sending a message that there is a steep price to pay for their misdeeds,” US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.

“At the direction of President Trump, Treasury and our inter-agency partners will continue to take decisive and impactful actions to hold accountable those who abuse human rights, perpetrate corruption, and undermine American ideals.”

Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders said it regretted that the US administration put only a low-level Chinese official on the sanctions list.

It urged the US to aim sanctions at more senior officials, including deputy public security minister Fu Zhenghua, who was Beijing’s police chief when Cao died.

Liu Weidong, a Sino-US affairs specialist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the sanctions would have very little impact on ties between the two countries.

“This list is not aimed only at Chinese and the matter is minor compared to problems like North Korea and trade,” Liu said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China opposed the US using sanctions to target other countries’ citizens based on their own domestic laws.

“We urge the United States to impartially and objectively look upon China’s human rights development and to stop acting as a so-called human rights judge,” she said, adding that China’s police maintain public security in accordance with law.

Additional reporting by Kristin Huang and Reuters

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