Li Heping’s reunion with his family on 9 May 2017 was a moment for celebration; the celebration of an innocent man’s reunion with his long-suffering family and the celebration of the end of a period of torture, interrogation and imprisonment. But the joy of Li Heping’s reunion with his family is tempered by continuing concerns for his safety, and the injustice of his situation.
Who is Li Heping?
Li Heping is one of China’s most experienced and high profile human rights lawyers. He began working on sensitive cases around 2002 and is well known for defending the human rights of religious minorities, including Christians and Falun Gong practitioners, as well as activists and victims of torture.
His work on these cases led to a confrontation with the state. A Chinese security agent reportedly once told him that, in the eyes of Beijing, Li had become “more dangerous than Bin Laden”. In September 2007, Li was abducted, stripped and tortured by security forces. He then had his lawyers’ license revoked in 2009, and continued to be consistently monitored.
The ‘709 Crackdown’
On 10 July 2015, the Chinese government detained Li as part of a series of sweeping detentions of human rights lawyers and their staff known as the ‘709 crackdown.’ In an unprecedented move, over 300 lawyers, activists, colleagues and family members were interrogated, detained or disappeared. Li was disappeared and held in incommunicado detention, unable to contact his lawyer or family.
The treatment of prisoners in detention
While held in detention, Li Heping and other prisoners have suffered intensely. Li Chunfu, Li Heping’s brother, also a human right’s lawyer, was released on ‘bail’ on 12 January 2017. He was then swiftly hospitalised after it emerged that torture had left him physically frail and suffering from symptoms of schizophrenia. It is believed that Li Heping was kept in similar conditions from July 2015 until May 2017. On being reunited with her husband, Li’s wife Wang Qiaoling said in an interview with the Guardian,
“He has changed completely, his appearance, his physical looks… [he is] so different from the husband I remember… I am pretty sure he was treated with great cruelty.”
Li’s trial, sentencing and release
Li is a Christian, a husband and a father. The journey to Li Heping’s recent trial has been a long and arduous one for his family, who have been his greatest advocates, particularly his wife Wang Qiaoling, who has been outspoken about the injustices against Li and their family and has faced significant intimidation. His daughter Li Jiamei has also appeared in a video calling for her father’s release.
On 25 April 2017, Li Heping was secretly tried. On 28 April, it became known that he had been convicted of “subverting state power” and given a three-year prison sentence, suspended for four years. Although he should have been released at that time, he continued to be held by the authorities until he was eventually released on 9 May.
A moment to celebrate or a case of concern?
Two weeks ago it was unclear whether or not Li Heping would be released at all. His trial had taken place in secret and he was not immediately reunited with his family. Nobody had any idea about his physical or mental state, or what would happen to him in the future. His safe release into the arms of his wife is therefore a timely reprieve and a moment to celebrate.
Having said this, serious concerns remain. While his sentence is suspended, Li will be deprived of political rights and if he violates the terms of probation, a period in jail awaits. CSW notes similarities in his case with that of prominent human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng. When Gao was sentenced to three years in prison with a probation period of five years in 2006, he was forcibly disappeared six times and severely tortured in detention. Wang Qiaoling has already cited fears that their whole family are being watched and closely monitored.
In a statement translated by China Change she said:
“They told me that I should be happy with this outcome, because ‘your husband can come home.’ You lock someone up and torture them for nearly two years, and now you come and tell me that this is the best outcome?”
For now, the joy of his family and supporters is tempered by the knowledge that this is not the end of his story or their search for justice.
By Johnny Patterson, CSW’s Advocacy Assistant