‘My husband is innocent’: Wife of detained Chinese lawyer barred from trial

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Originally published by The Guardian on December 26, 2018

Li Wenzu was blocked by police officers from leaving her apartment complex to attend the trial of her husband Wang Quanzhang

It was a little after 5am on Boxing Day when Li Wenzu tried to leave her apartment to attend her husband’s trial.

She hadn’t slept much the last two nights after receiving the news that her husband, human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, would finally face trial after more than three years of waiting in prison. She hasn’t been able to see or speak to him during that time. 

On Wednesday, hours before the trial was to begin, Li walked down the seven flights of stairs of her apartment block in Beijing to find more than a dozen plainclothes police and four cars awaiting her outside. She had already been warned by public security agents not to attend her husband’s trial at a courthouse in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin.

After three years of protesting and calling for the release of her husband, on trial for subverting the state, a charge often used for dissidents, Li is used to the police restricting her movements.

“Every time it feels different. Today is Wang Quanzhang’s court hearing, which means there could be a verdict. So I am very worried about that as well as his health,” she said.

Li was quickly surrounded by a crowd of journalists and security agents, holding up their phones to film her. A man who refused to show his identification offered to drive her the 120km to Tianjin but she refused. As she tried to move, the crowd of security agents blocked her way. It was clear they were not going to let her leave.

After forcing foreign journalists from the compound, Li spent an hour trying to find a way out. Police had blocked all exits, forcing her to return to her apartment.

“My husband is innocent. He was illegally arrested and detained for three and-a half years. Throughout this time, the authorities have continued to break the law, forbidding lawyers from seeing him, and cutting him off from all communication. They have deprived him of his rights”, she said, outside her home. 

“I demand Wang Quanzhang be freed because he is innocent,” she said.

On Wednesday, Wang, who was detained in August 2015 after years of defending political activists, victims of land seizures, and members of the banned religious group Falun Gong, faced a closed trial in Tianjin.

Police cordoned off the road outside the courthouse. Dozens of plainclothes security policed the area. Yang Chunlin, an activist who protested the government’s use of the Olympics to seize land from residents, stood across from the court house, and called for Wang’s release.

“Wang Quanzhang is a good person. He is a good person for the world,” the man, who identified himself as Yang Chunlin, and said that he had met Wang. “You can take my life but being human means I must speak out,” he said while surrounded by unidentified men who later bundled him into a black car. 

Before the trial was scheduled to begin, another man held up a sign outside the courthouse that said: “Free innocent Wang Quanzhang.” He was also taken away, according to photos posted on social media.Advertisement

Representatives from the US, Swiss, UK, and German embassies were outside the courthouse and were also refused access to the trial. The trial, which was scheduled to begin at 8:30am local time appeared to be over by early afternoon when security cleared.

Wang’s case marks the close of one of the most serious campaigns against activists under Chinese president Xi Jinping. He is one of approximately 250 lawyers and activists detained in the summer of 2015, now known as the 709 crackdown for the first day of the detentions. He is the last of the group still awaiting trial.

According to a copy of his indictment, seen by the Guardian, authorities said Wang “seriously harmed the country’s security and social stability” by accepting funds from foreign organisations, training barefoot, or self-taught lawyers, representing “cults,” and providing investigative reports overseas. He was also accused of “maliciously inciting” opposition to the government by publishing information online about the detention of four lawyers representing the Falun Gong in 2014.

Wang’s case is also unique for the amount of time he has been held incommunicado. After disappearing in 2015, it was not until July of this year that Wang’s family knew for sure he was alive when a lawyer and friend of the family was able to see him. Wang’s isolation has also prompted concerns that he has been tortured or subjected to other forms of ill treatment.

A UN rights working group on arbitrary detentions in August called on Chinato release Wang. The UN noted that authorities had violated Wang’s right to legal counsel of his own choosing by pressuring lawyers to drop his case or detaining them.

Expectations for Wang’s verdict were not optimistic. Of the nine lawyers or activists from the 2015 crackdown who have been tried, all have been convicted. Four have been released on suspended sentences, on strict parole, while the others are serving prison sentences. Wang’s charge carries a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

Previous cases tried during the week of Christmas, when much of the Western world is distracted, also set a worrying precedent, observers say. Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died last year of cancer while in police custody, was sentenced to 11 years on Christmas Day in 2009.

Last year, another dissident, Wu Gan, was sentenced to eight years in prison on Boxing Day.

“His family has to endure this horrible waiting game. It could go either way. He could get a life sentence or he could be released on a suspended sentence. That’s an intense set of an emotions between hope and fear,” said Frances Eve, a researcher with Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

Earlier this year, Li attempted to walk more than 100 kilometers from Beijing to Tianjin to find her husband before she was stopped by police. Last week, she shaved her head along with the wives of other lawyers seized in the crackdown in protest of Wang’s treatment – using a play on the word wufa, “without hair,” which sounds similar to “without law.” 

“I can have no hair, but this country cannot be without law,” she said.

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