Submission to UN on Chen Jianfang – April 16, 2019

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Submission to:

Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights (reprisals team)

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders

Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances 

Working Group on Arbitrary Detention 

Allegation Letter

on behalf of CHEN Jianfang, citizen of the People’s Republic of China Alleging Enforced Disappearance, Arbitrary Detention, Reprisals Against a Human Rights Defender for Engaging with UN Human Rights Mechanisms & Violation of Freedom of Expression


1. Family name: Chen (陈)

2. First name: Jianfang (建芳)

3. Sex: Female

4. Birth date or age (at the time of detention): January 23, 1970

5. Nationality/Nationalities: People’s Republic of China

6. Identity document (if any): National ID Card No. 

7. Profession and/or activity (if believed to be relevant to the arrest/detention): 

Chen Jianfang is a human rights defender who began her activism over land rights issues. Originally a farmer, Chen Jianfang and her family lost land to government-backed developers in Shanghai. She petitioned the Shanghai city government and central authorities in Beijing for compensation. Despite the harassment and persecution she faced as a result of those efforts, she has emerged as a leading voice in protests on land and housing rights, demanding protection of access to justice, as well as a defender of the rights to free expression and peaceful demonstration. 

In 2013, she was among hundreds of activists in Shanghai who demonstrated to demand the release of activists detained for their call for top officials to disclose personal wealth, to urge the government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and to ask for information disclosure on the government’s claim that civil society had participated in the preparation of the national human rights report for UPR. Shanghai activists including Chen, in an effort to promote advocacy related to the UPR, publicly handed out copies on June 17, 2013 of the “UPR Recommendations” to China, which were made by other member States of the Human Rights Council during UPR in 2009. After reading the recommendations, some Shanghai residents reportedly expressed hope that more countries could make recommendations to the Chinese government in the upcoming UPR, including on the rights of disadvantaged groups and issues of forced demolition and land expropriation. In September 2013, authorities stopped Chen from boarding a flight in Guangzhou to attend a human rights training and to observe a Human Rights Council session in Geneva—on the same day when Cao Shunli was abducted by police while heading to the same program. Police forcibly returned Chen to Shanghai, where she was detained, interrogated, and closely monitored. Chen was disappeared again in November 2013, just a week prior to the Human Rights Council election, when China would be voted to the body for a second term despite a bleak human rights record and efforts by many, including Chen, to expose the government’s abuses. 

Chen’s advocacy has put her at constant risk of retaliation by authorities, including intimidation, physical assault, and arbitrary detention. She was again prevented from traveling abroad in October 2017, when she was to take part in a human rights forum in Ireland. Authorities have tried, though unsuccessfully, to deter Chen and stifle her advocacy by locking her up in “black jails” (makeshift detention facilities), and police also detained her for 15 months at a Re-education through Labor camp in 2010-11. In 2018, Chen was named the co-recipient of the 2018 Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders. 

8. Address of usual residence: Shanghai Municipality, People’s Republic of China (address tied to household registration, but property on this site was demolished in 2007)

Shanghai (the home where she and her husband were living)

II. Arrest

1. Date of arrest: March 20, 2019 (the last contact with Chen on an online chat was at 23:15 on March 19 and by March 20 her home had been surrounded by police.)

2. Place of arrest (as detailed as possible): Shanghai (her home)

3. Forces who carried out the arrest or are believed to have carried it out: Shanghai Public Security Bureau officers

4. Did they show a warrant or other decision by a public authority? Unknown

5. Authority who issued the warrant or decision: Unknown

6. Reasons for the arrest imputed by the authorities: Unknown

7. Legal basis for the arrest including relevant legislation applied (if known): Unknown

III. Detention

1. Date of detention: March 20, 2019  

2. Duration of detention (if not known, probable duration): Chen Jianfang has been continuously detained since March 20, 2019  

3. Forces holding the detainee under custody: Unknown  

4. Places of detention (indicate any transfer and present place of detention): Unknown 

5. Authorities that ordered the detention: Unknown  

6. Reasons for the arrest imputed by the authorities: Unknown

7. Legal basis for the arrest including relevant legislation applied (if known): Unknown

IV. Describe the circumstances of the arrests

Shanghai police officers seized Ms. Chen Jianfang on the night of March 19-20, 2019 from her home in Shanghai and have continuously been holding her under enforced disappearance since then. Her friends last had contact with Chen through an online messaging platform at 23:15 on March 19 and according to neighbours, on March 20 in the morning, they witnessed approximately seven police cars outside her home. Her current whereabouts and the criminal charges against her are unknown. Her husband was taken away at the same time and is under enforced disappearance. Their home remains under surveillance by plainclothes officers. 

Days before being detained, Chen had penned a tribute to her former colleague, activist Cao Shunli, to mark the fifth anniversary of the death in custody of Cao on March 14, 2013. The essay was released online on March 14, 2019. Several UN independent human rights experts released a statement on the same day, renewing their call for an investigation into Cao Shunli’s death.[1]

In Chen’s essay, she denounced the Chinese government’s shrinking of responsibilities and failure to set up an independent investigation as demanded by Cao’s family and lawyer. She wrote, “I use my grief as a force to carry on the unfinished work of Ms. Cao Shunli, to continue to defend human rights, and never take a break until China achieves genuine freedom and democracy.”[2]

Chen Jianfang, alongside Cao, faced reprisals for their engagement with the second universal periodic review cycle of China. Chen Jianfang was the subject of a public statement by special procedures on October 16, 2013,[3]and had previously been raised in the Secretary-General’s reprisals report A/HRC/27/38, paras. 17-19.

V. Indicate reasons why you consider the arrests and/or detentions to be arbitrary

We strongly believe the detention on Chen Jianfang is in reprisal for her engagement with the UN on human rights in relation to the anniversary of the death in custody of Cao Shunli and is government retaliation against acts protected by the universal right to freedom of expression. 

The circumstances of the detention constitute a violation of Chen Jianfang’s right to peacefully exercise free speech, including those guaranteed under Category II of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (i.e., when the deprivation of liberty results from the exercise of the rights under Articles 12, 18, 19, 21, 22, and 26), and freedoms guaranteed by Articles 18, 19, and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Chen has been disappeared by police, and her current whereabouts, the criminal charges against her, and status is unknown. Her husband has been detained, thus preventing a family member from engaging a lawyer for her. While Chen’s status is unknown, it may be possible she is being held under “residential surveillance in a designated location” (RSDL), a form of detention whereby a detainee can be held in secret for up to six months, as codified under China’s Criminal Procedure Law (Article 75 under the 2018 CPL, previously Article 73). RSDL is tantamount to enforced disappearance according to international standards, and 10 UN Special Procedures called on the Chinese government to repeal the provision in August 2018 (OL CHN 15/2018).

If Chen is held under RSDL, Chinese law still dictates her family must be informed within 24 hours of her status (Article 75, CPL). She is entitled to a lawyer under Article 33 of the CPL, though approval must be granted by authorities if she is suspected of a crime in the “endangering state security” (Article 83, CPL).

The above circumstances demonstrate violations of Chen’s rights guaranteed under Category III of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 9) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 9).

VI. Indicate internal steps, including domestic remedies, taken especially with the legal and administrative authorities, particularly for the purpose of establishing the detention and, as appropriate, their results or the reasons why such steps or remedies were ineffective or why they were not taken.

It is believed that authorities have put pressure on Chen Jianfang’s’s daughter to not speak out on her case. One of Chen’s friends tried to meet with Chen daughter on March 28, 2019, but the daughter abruptly cancelled the meeting and said, “it’s not convenient now, let’s talk later.” The friend tried to call the daughter a week later on April 5, but she hung up the phone and said, “you are mistaken.” On April 10, 2019, some of Chen’s friends visited her home and spoke to neighbours, who said that police told them not to disclose Chen’s situation to outsiders.  One of Chen’s lawyer friends looked for her and her husband by asking the detention centers in the city if they were held there but were told that they were not there. 

Date submitted: April 16, 2019

[1]“China: UN experts renew calls for probe into death of Cao Shunli,” March 14, 2019,

[2]“Chen Jianfang: Commemoration of the 5thAnniversary of Cao Shunli’s Persecution to Death” (陈建芳:纪念曹顺利女士被迫害致死5周年的感言), Rights Defence Network (维权网), March 14, 2019,

[3]“UN experts alarmed by reprisals against Chinese human rights activists,” October 16, 2013,

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