5 Years After Death in Custody of Cao Shunli, HRDs in China Continue to Face Same Pattern of Abuse

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5 Years After Death in Custody of Cao Shunli, HRDs in China Continue to Face Same Pattern of Abuse

(Chinese Human Rights Defenders—March 6, 2019) The Chinese government has taken no steps to investigate and prosecute any official responsible for the deadly reprisal against Cao Shunli (曹顺利) for her cooperation with the United Nations. In the five years since Cao Shunli’s death in custody on March 14, 2014, more prisoners/detainees of conscience perished in police custody, most notably Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned dissident writer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, prominent Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, and Uyghur Koranic scholar Muhammad Salih Hajim, while state perpetrators still enjoy total impunity.  

Human rights defenders in China, especially women, continue to face reprisals—enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture—for promoting and protecting human rights, says CHRD on this occasion, which also marks International Women’s Day on March 8. 

On March 15, as government delegates gather in Geneva at a UN Human Rights Council session to adopt a report on last year’s 3rd Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of China’s human rights conditions, it is imperative to remember that Cao Shunli paid the ultimate price for assisting the 2013 2nd UPR of China. She died in police custody following months-long torture and cruel punishment through deprivation of adequate medical treatment at the Beijing Chaoyang District Detention Center. 

Enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture or cruel and inhumane treatment led to the death of Cao Shunli. This pattern has become entrenched and routine in police operations targeting human rights defenders, dissidents, religious practitioners, and ethnic minorities in Tibetan and Uyghur regions under the dictatorship of Xi Jinping. 

CHRD urges the UN Human Rights Council and UN Member States to publicly call on the Chinese government to invite UN human rights experts to conduct independent investigations into the deaths in custody of Cao Shunli, Liu Xiaobo, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, Muhammad Salih Hajim, and others, as a first step towards holding state agents criminally accountable for these deaths. Member States’ delegations must also speak out during the current session of Human Rights Council, on the occasion of adopting the UPR report on China on March 15, to demand the Chinese government end ongoing human rights abuses against human rights defenders, lawyers, religious practitioners, and ethnic minorities in Tibetan and Uyghur regions.

Punishment by Medical Deprivation & Deaths in Custody

Punishment by depriving medical treatment to detainees or prisoners is a life-threatening form of torture. Chinese authorities’ refusals, often against families and lawyers’ repeated requests, to provide adequate medical treatment for gravely ill detainees/prisoners of conscience violates Chinese law and international human rights standards. Punishment by medical deprivation reflects a tacit Chinese government policy and is clearly a systematic practice in China. 

Police initially abducted Cao Shunli at the Beijing Capital International airport on September 14, 2013, when she was to travel to Geneva for training on UN human rights mechanisms and to observe a Human Rights Council session ahead of China’s 2nd Universal Periodic Review. Cao disappeared for five weeks until Beijing police confirmed she had been criminally detained. She was subsequently denied medical treatment and medical bail despite her worsening health, which culminated in her death at a hospital ward cordoned off by a large group of Beijing police. 

Authorities prevented Cao Shunli from travelling to Geneva to speak about the government’s human rights abuses by disappearing and detaining her. Arbitrary detention of rights defenders and dissidents remains a widespread and systemic form of punishment in China. An estimated 976 activists and dissidents are currently under enforced disappearance, pre-trial detention, or in prison.

CHRD’s medical watch list, launched after Cao’s death, currently lists 11 detained or imprisoned human rights defenders that are gravely ill and in urgent need of medical treatment. In one such case, detained rights defender Huang Qi (黄琦) is suffering from life-threatening illnesses and his condition has rapidly declined. Authorities refused to release him on medical grounds while only providing inadequate treatment for his liver and heart diseases and fluid in the brain. The deliberate punishment of Huang Qi by medical deprivation raised alarm. It follows the same pattern of persecution that led to Cao Shunli’s death. 14 human rights NGOs and 4 UN independent human rights experts called for Huang’s release over concerns he could die in detention. 

In addition to the death of Cao Shunli, the same pattern of persecution to death by medical deprivation and other forms of torture is visible in the deaths of a number of prisoners of conscience in recent years: in 2018, Tibetan political prisoner Shonu Palden and the Uyghur scholar Muhammad Salih Hajim, who was the first person to translate the Koran into Uyghur language; Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) and dissident writer Yang Tongyan (杨同彦) in 2017; democracy activist Peng Ming (彭明) in 2016; Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche in 2015; Tibetan Goshul Lobsang in 2014; and activists Chen Xiaoming (陈晓明) and Duan Huimin (段惠民) in the 2000s. Reportedly, from 2008-2014, at least 30 Tibetans have died in detention as a result of torture. Many had been deprived of medical treatment. Testimonies of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims who have escaped the mass internment camps in the Xinjiang region have described medical deprivation and there have been several other reports of deaths in internment camps and detention facilities, including the death of the mother of an international human rights activist in a detention center, where she may have been held in reprisal for her son’s human rights activities.

The Chinese government has undertaken no significant revision of legal provisions in Chinese law since Cao Shunli’s death to effectively prohibit and prevent torture. Legal loopholes, perverse incentives, and poor or selective law enforcement allow torture to remain rampant in police stations and incarceration facilities in China, especially in the mass internment camps in the Uyghur region under the pretext of the government’s campaigns to eradicate “terrorism, separatism, and extremism.” 

Victims of deaths in detention: (clockwise from top left) Peng Ming, Liu Xiaobo, Muhammad Salih Hajim, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, Cao Shunli, and Li Ning holding a portrait of her mother, Li Shulian.

Impunity for death in detention

Torturers and officials responsible for deaths in detention continue to enjoy impunity in China, especially when their victims are deemed “enemies of the state,” such as human rights activists, dissidents, and certain religious or ethnic minorities. 

In two recent cases, Chinese authorities responded to deaths in detention by covering up the death, blocking reports, intimidating family members who spoke out and sought justice, and refusing to investigate or prosecute the accused perpetrators. Activist Liu Zhen (刘振) died under suspicious circumstances in a Liaoning detention center on January 13, 2019. His son went missing for over three days when he spoke out after viewing his father’s body and finding bruises. Activist Jin Shunnü (金顺女) died in October 2018in detention on “national security” related charges. Her family filed a complaint in January 2019 urging Fushan City authorities to investigate. Officials refused to give the family any explanation of her death. 

In one telling case about the government’s method to stonewall and harass families seeking justice for deaths in detention, the decade-long perseverance of a young woman, Li Ning, has so far produced meagre result to hold accountable the killers of her mother, activist Li Shulian (李淑莲). In December 2018, in a closed-door trial, 7 officials received light prison sentences over Li Shulian’s torture to death in 2009 in an extralegal “black jail” in Longkou City, Shandong. Authorities cited “state secrets” to block Li Ning from attending the trial. The daughter spent the past decade petitioning, pressuring the government on social media, working with lawyers, legal scholars, and human rights NGOs, in search of justice. Li Shulian’s case went to the UN Committee Against Torture during its 2015 review of China, which concluded China must abolish secret detention and provide redress for families while citing her case. 

Systemic Use of Enforced Disappearances 

Since Cao Shunli’s death, Chinese authorities have increasingly used enforced disappearance against human rights defenders, which has allowed authorities to subject detainees to torture in secret locations without any access to their lawyers. Following Cao’s death in 2014, her lawyer Wang Yu was disappeared in 2015 for six months into a legalized form of enforced disappearance in China known as Residential Surveillance in Designated Location (RSDL).  Wang was detained for over a year, subjected to torture, and stripped of her law license. RSDL, first introduced in 2012, has been widely used in the government’s retaliation against human rights lawyers since 2015 and more broadly against rights defenders. 

Article 75 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law (amended in 2018) authorizes police to hold detainees suspected of endangering national security in secret locations and deny them any access to their lawyers and families, leaving the detainees at high risk of being tortured. The Chinese government has rejected calls by 10 independent UN human rights experts and the UN Committee Against Torture for China to abolish RSDL. 

The use of enforced disappearance is not limited to rights defenders. In March 2018, China’s rubber stamp parliament approved the creation of the “National Supervisory Commission” (liuzhi), a system that allows for enforced disappearance of Chinese Communist Party or government officials for up to six months for “investigation” in a secret location if the official is suspected of corruption or other violations of CCP rules. In 2018, authorities secretly detained or forced into disappearance a number of individuals, including a prominent film star, the head of Interpol, a US permanent resident photographer, and two Canadians.

Reprisals for Cooperating with UN Human Rights Bodies Continue

The deadly reprisal against Cao Shunli has not deterred the Chinese government. Instead, China has since become more emboldened in retaliating against HRDs inside and outside China for their work upholding international human rights standards and cooperating with the UN human rights mechanisms. 

In addition to disappearance, torture, and arbitrary detention, retaliatory acts by Chinese authorities also include rejecting applications for passports, blocking exit from the country, interrogation, revoking lawyers’ licenses to practice law, forcing NGOs to shut down, and threatening housing rental or jobs by pressuring landlords or employers. 

Outside China, Chinese state agents openly or anonymously threaten international human rights activists and NGOs with abduction and assault, block their participation at UN events, interrupt them from speaking at international forums, and intimidate them by photographing or following them around the UN grounds.

The lack of any meaningful sanctions by the international human rights system for the lethal reprisal against Cao Shunli sent a signal to the Chinese government that it could continue carrying out reprisals against human rights defenders with virtual impunity. China has been criticized in the UN Secretary-General’s annual reprisals report every year since 2014. Yet China was re-elected to the UN Human Rights Council in 2016 despite its demonstrable failure to uphold the “highest standards of human rights,” obligatory of Council members, and its aggressive campaign at the UN to weaken universal human rights standards. 

Women Human Rights Defenders

Cao Shunli’s fight for justice and human right, and her life and death, is representative of many women HRDs who have braved the trail in promoting and defending human rights in China. As a result, many of them faced persecution including arbitrary detention, torture and inhumane punishment by medical deprivation. They include lawyer Li Yuhan (李昱函), activists Liu Ping (刘萍)Li Xiaoling (李小玲)Su Changlan (苏昌兰)Jia Lingmin (贾灵敏), and citizen journalists Ding Lingjie (丁灵杰)Wang Jing (王晶), and Wang Shurong (王淑蓉), and recent college graduate and labor rights activist Yue Xin (岳昕), amongst others.

Persecuted women HRDs often face sexual harassment. Several women HRDs spoke out in 2018, accusing policemen of subjecting them to degrading treatment by forcing them to undergo strip searches,and sexual harassment to intimidate them, including Xu Yan (许燕), the wife of detained human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng (于文生), lawyer Sun Shihua (孙世华), and activist Zhang Lifang (张丽芳)

Women, detained HRDs’ wives, sisters, mothers, have been on the forefront of campaigns for their release despite harsh retaliation from authorities. Pu Wenqing (蒲文清), the 86-year-old mother of Huang Qi, has spoken out and travelled to Beijing to deman dauthorities to release her son. To silence her, police detained Pu in a secret location for more than one month and only released her into house arrest as her health seriously deteriorated. 

The wives of detained rights lawyers in the “7.09 Crackdown” have courageously and creatively campaigned for their persecuted husbands. Li Wenzu (李文足), the wife of Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), Liu Ermin (刘二敏), wife of Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民), Wang Qiaoling (王峭岭), wife of Li Heping (李和平), Yuan Shanshan (原珊珊), wife of Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), and Xu Yan,wife of Yu Wensheng, submitted numerous petitions to the Supreme People’s Court, held protests, raised attention online, and once marched by foot from Beijing to Tianjin, to draw attention to the persecution of their husbands. Authorities hit back at them and their children with detention, abduction, housing eviction, restricted movement, banned travel abroad, and constant surveillance and monitoring. 

The Chinese government has intensified suppression of women’s rights advocates, including NGOs advocating for women’s rights, in recent years. Authorities criminally detained five Chinese feminists and women’s rights activists in March 2015 to stop them from raising awareness about sexual harassment on public transportation on International Women’s Day. Authorities have targeted NGOs, such as the Beijing Yirenping Center, a public health and anti-discrimination NGO, the Weizhiming Women’s Center in Hangzhou, which had run campaigns against gender discrimination, violence against women, and sexual harassment, and the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center, which provided legal assistance to women. 

While the #MeToo movement sparked a  conversation in 2018, mainly online, about sexual harassment in China, it also led to some backlash and widespread censorship. Authorities also shut down Sina Weibo and Tencent WeChat accounts of the group “Feminist Voices” in March. 

In Geneva, this week, the UN Human Rights Council and UN Member States should publicly call on the Chinese government to end its persecution of human rights defenders, including women HRDs and women’s rights advocatesand to take the following steps:

  • Invite UN experts to conduct independent investigations into the deaths of Cao Shunli, Liu Xiaobo, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, Muhammad Salih Hajim, and others with a view to holding the perpetrators criminally accountable, and ensure all deaths in detention are promptly and independently investigated;
  • End enforced disappearances, and abolish RSDL and other “legalized” forms of enforced disappearance;
  • End arbitrary detention of human rights defenders, including lawyers;
  • End all forms of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of human rights defenders, and ensure HRDs have access to prompt and appropriate medical treatment; and
  • End all forms of reprisals against defenders for cooperating with the UN in promoting and protecting human rights. 

For more information on Cao Shunli, check out this new page on our website


Renee Xia, International Director (Mandarin, English), +1 863 866 1012 reneexia[at]nchrd.org, Follow on Twitter: @ReneeXiaCHRD

Frances Eve, Deputy Director of Research (English), +1 661 240 9177 franceseve[at]nchrd.org, Follow on Twitter: @FrancesEveCHRD

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