China: Stop Using COVID-19 for Unnecessary Restrictions on Detainees’ Visitation Rights

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China: Stop Using COVID-19 for Unnecessary Restrictions on Detainees’ Visitation Rights

(Chinese Human Rights Defenders—June 22, 2020) The Chinese government must ensure protection of detainees and prisoners’ rights to legal counsel and family visitation during the COVID-19 pandemic. CHRD has documented a dozen cases of denied access by detainees or prisoners of conscience to their lawyers and families, including virtual meetings, on coronavirus grounds. The lawyers and families, concerned about threats to the health and right to life of those in custody, alleged that government authorities continue to use the pandemic as an excuse to deny these rights to detainees and prisoners of conscience, who should not have been in custody in the first place. Such restrictions continue even as the government rapidly opened up the country from the lockdown with a frenzy of propaganda proclaiming its victory in combating the virus outbreak. 

The continuing deprivation of visitation rights does not meet international standards on restrictions on human rights during public health emergencies. In some instances, Chinese officials have stated that the suspensions are “indefinite” or until the pandemic is over, even if lockdown restrictions elsewhere have already begun to be lifted and authorities have declared that public health milestones have been met. Special pandemic rules on visitation have not been publicly posted online, which misled some lawyers to travel to the detention or prison facilities only to learn about the restriction on site. Officials at these facilities have cited but could not produce any specific documents to show the “rules” for denying video or telephone calls with families or lawyers. Some prisoners of conscience have only had sporadic correspondences with families since the beginning of the outbreak. 

As of mid-June, authorities’ ban on such visits have remained firmly in place despite travel restrictions have already been lifted, factories, offices, schools, markets have reopened across China. On April 7, Wuhan City and Hubei Province, the epicentre of the outbreak in China, ended its lockdown and China declared there had been no COVID deaths for the first time since the pandemic began. 

The following 12 cases that CHRD has documented involve detainees or prisoners of conscience whose lawyers or families have been banned from visits by Chinese authorities, specifically citing COVID-19 as grounds for the denial: 

In Prison:

  • Activist and citizen journalist Huang Qi is serving a 12-year prison sentence at Bazhong Prison in Sichuan Province. On April 21, prison officials told his elderly mother that visits were suspended due to the pandemic and refused to allow telephone calls.
  • Activist and dissident Qin Yongmin is serving a 13-year prison sentence at Guanghua Prison in Hubei Province. Prison officials have denied visits with family and not allowed him to make video or phone calls. 
  • Tibetan activist and businessman Tashi Wangchuk is serving a 5-year prison sentence at Dongchuan Prison in Qinghai Province. Prison officials denied his lawyers a meeting with him on April 27 and said visits were suspended indefinitely until the pandemic was over.  
  • Lawyer Wang Quanzhang served a portion of his 4.5-year prison sentence at Linyi Prison in Shandong Province. On February 13, the prison cancelled a visit with his wife Li Wenzu and their son on the grounds of the coronavirus pandemic and refused to allow a video call instead. After Wang was released from prison on April 5, authorities forced him into quarantine at his hukou-registered town and did not allow him to return to his home in Beijing after completing a 14-day quarantine and testing negative five times. He finally returned home on April 27 after his wife had a medical emergency.

In Detention Facilities: 

  • Activist Chen Jianfang has been detained since March 2019. Shanghai Detention Center officials refused her lawyer a meeting in early June 2020 on the grounds that due to the coronavirus pandemic, the lawyer can only make one visit per investigation period. The lawyer met with her in September 2019 after she had been indicted. Chen has not been put on trial yet.
  • Lawyer Hao Jinsong (郝劲松) has been detained since December 17, 2019 and currently held at Wutai County Detention Center in Xinzhou City, Shanxi Province. Detention center officials denied his lawyer a visit on May 23 on coronavirus grounds.
  • Lawyer Li Yuhan has been detained at Shenyang City No. 1 Detention Center in Liaoning Province since October 2017. Since a visit with her lawyer in January 2020, Li has been denied all visits with her lawyer since then on the grounds of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Artist Liu Jinxing (aka Zhui Hun) has been detained at Nanjing City No. 3 Detention Center in Jiangsu Province since May 29, 2019. Detention center officials have denied his lawyers all visits since January 17 on coronavirus grounds.
  • Activist Shen Liangqing has been detained at Hefei City Detention Center in Anhui Province since May 16, 2019. Detention center officials have denied him lawyers visits on coronavirus grounds since February.
  • Activist Xie Wenfei has been detained at Zixing City Detention Center in Hunan Province since April 30, 2020. On May 11, detention center officials told his lawyer that in order to meet with him, he must provide a CT scan of his lungs, results of a COVID-19 test, and his health app code. As a result, the lawyer had to leave that day without a visit. That night, national security officers forced Xie’s brother to fire the lawyer. 
  • Activist Xu Kun (徐昆) has been detained since August 17, 2019 and held at pre-trial detention at Panlong District No. 2 Detention Center in Kunming, Yunnan Province. Officials have denied his lawyers two visits on the grounds of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Activist Zhang Baocheng has been detained since May 28, 2019 and currently held at Beijing No. 1 Detention Center. Officials have denied his lawyer visits on coronavirus grounds. Beijing No. 1 Intermediate Court informed his lawyer on April 27, 2020 that the trial period would be recalculated due to the pandemic. 

Under China’s Prison Law and Criminal Procedure Law, lawyers and families have the right to visit and correspond with those in custody. Though China’s Law on the Prevention and Treatment of Infectious Diseases grants central government authorities emergency powers to control an epidemic situation, however, international human rights standards require that any suspension of rights during a public health emergency should be “legal, proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory, have a specific focus and duration, and take the least intrusive approach possible to protect public health.” The complete indefinite blanket denial of lawyers’ and family visits, including virtual meetings, to jailed HRDs does not meet these standards. 

By refusing to ease restriction on visitation rights of detainees/prisoners of conscience, the Chinese government continues to contravene the new UN guidance on COVID-19 on deprivation of liberty.  “Those who are arbitrarily detained should be immediately released as the prohibition of arbitrary detention is a non-derogable norm and their continued detention under the current public health emergency might also severely impact their right to health and their right to life,” the Guidance stipulates. Chinese authorities have not released any detainees/prisoners of conscience in the pandemic except in those cases where the prisoners have served their full terms.  Instead, authorities imposed unnecessary restrictions, without specific time limit, on visitation and communication with lawyers and families. 

The lawyers and families, whom we have spoken to, said they did not know if the Chinese government had taken any meaningful steps to protect the prison population from the virus. Police have locked up more people in detention facilities during the pandemic as they continued to silence, intimidate, and penalize Chinese citizens for sharing information about the early outbreak or criticising the government’s handling of the public health emergency. Authorities have also used emergency quarantine powers to detain individuals into secret quarantine facilities for exercising their right to free expression. 

The Chinese government must immediately release those who are arbitrarily detained in China in violation of their human rights including their right to health and right to life. Authorities must lift any unnecessary and time-unspecific restrictions to prisoners and detainees’ rights to legal counsel and to visit and correspond with their families. Whether China has controlled COVID-19 or not, the public health emergency does not justify its continuing strict ban on access of detainees/prisoners of conscience to their lawyers and families.


Renee Xia, Director (Mandarin, English), +1 863 866 1012, reneexia[at]

Leo Lan, Research & Advocacy Consultant (Mandarin, Cantonese, English), Signal: +852 9623 3023, leolan[at]

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