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.
Widows Donatilda and Adalgiza
Ten years ago I sat in a small, hot room in Trujillo, Peru with a colleague and three women each clutching a folder. They held the folders as if they contained a fortune, and we leaned forward as one by one they carefully opened their folder to show us the precious contents. There were a few old photographs and scores of documents peppered with government stamps. When they finished, each woman closed her folder, looked at us, and said “I still don’t know where he is.”
The three women were talking about their husbands, victims of enforced disappearance. Some twenty years earlier the police had taken their husbands somewhere, making assurances to their young wives that they just needed to ask them a few questions and they’d soon be home. Days, then weeks, then years went by and their husbands did not return. The women went from police station to police station, then to the prisons, the hospitals and morgues but no one could tell them where they went, or rather, where they had been taken.
As we listened to them, I watched the way they treated the folders, holding them close to their chests, caressing the documents and photos as they showed them to us. I realised why the folders were so precious t them. It was because this was all they had left of their husbands. Without them, it was as if they had never existed at all.
Enforced disappearance is one of the cruellest human rights crimes.
There is the crime against the primary victim – who has disappeared – and this is compounded by the crime committed against their families and loved ones who endure years and even decades of wondering what has happened to them.