“He was forced to take medicine. They stuffed the pills into his mouth… After taking the pills he felt pain in his muscles and his vision was blurred… He was beaten. He endured gruelling questioning while being denied sleep for days on end…”
Wang Qiaoling describing the torture of her husband, lawyer Li Heping
“Even our breaths were suppressed. No voices. No texts. No images. No talking. No walking. Our hands, feet, our posture…every body movement was strictly limited. We needed permission for even the most trivial action”.
Lawyer Zhao Wei, the youngest legal assistant detained in the 709 Crackdown
“Prisoners were also put in cages submerged mostly in water, and left inside for seven days, the entire body underwater with a space to breath at the top. As they stood in the water and tried to sleep, rats would scurry about outside the cage, biting their nose and ears.”
Letter to world leaders by ‘709’ Family Members
These are just a few accounts of the torture experienced by human rights lawyers in China. Over 300 lawyers, activists, colleagues and family members were detained, interrogated or disappeared in a sweeping crackdown beginning on 9 July 2015, dubbed the 709 Crackdown. Two years on, most have been released, some on “bail” conditions amounting to house arrest, but with news of their release have come numerous testimonies of physical and psychological torture including frequent beatings, sleep deprivation, forced medication, violent threats, and prolonged isolation.
Use of torture in China
Lawyers and activists are by no means the only victims of torture. Many of the lawyers caught up in the crackdown had defended clients who had been tortured by police or security agents, including those arrested in connection with their religion or belief such as Falun Gong practitioners and Christians associated with unregistered churches, as well as those accused of crimes not related to politics or religion.
Human rights lawyer, Li Heping (right) pictured with his brother Li Chunfu (left) following his release from detention.
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.
Moving from official commitments to tangible changes people’s lives remains a key challenge in the realisation of human rights. I am reminded of the wonderful quote from African-American civil rights campaigner, Philip Randolph, who said, “Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.”
“Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.” – Philip Randolph
This quote draws attention to the importance of promoting human rights while reminding us that very rarely do human rights “just happen”; they are regularly contested, challenged and often only progressed through the active work of individual human rights defenders (HRDs) and NGOs who promote and defend human rights through activities such as advocacy, campaigning, demonstrations, and human rights journalism – whether paid or unpaid and regardless of geographical location.
The right and responsibility to promote human rights – either individually or in association with others – is the cornerstone of all human rights work.
Authorities remove cross from church in Zhejiang Province, China. Photo: Weibo, courtesy of ChinaChange.org
When leaders of the G20 nations arrive in Zhejiang Province, China, next week for the G20 summit, they will be greeted by a different skyline than they might have seen five years ago.
The sky scrapers and shopping malls that have become the hallmark of China’s phenomenal economic growth will still be there, but the bright red Christian crosses which were once just as much a feature of Zhejiang have been taken down.
Removal of crosses in Zhejiang Province
Hundreds of crosses have been removed by the authorities since early 2014, as part of a campaign allegedly introduced to rid the province of structures which violate building regulations. Under draft regulations, crosses now have to be flat against outer walls, and their size and colour are restricted. The authorities have sometimes employed violent tactics in the face of protests by church members. Christian leaders who have opposed the cross removals through letters or peaceful gatherings have been arrested and accused of economic crimes.
It may be no coincidence that the site of the cross removal campaign is the same province selected to host the G20.
It has been a year since over 300 human rights lawyers, activists, as well as those connected to them (including their friends and family), were detained by the Chinese government. That’s equivalent to one person harassed or disappeared every day since last July. Some of these lawyers have since vanished into China’s prison system. Others were released, but have lived with the threat of re-arrest hanging over them ever since.
For the lawyers that are left, what remains of their lives and careers? Read our story of Li Jing, a young lawyer watching the events of the July crackdown unfold around her.
This composite case study is constructed from real accounts. Similar things have happened, but we have changed the details.
Click here to read the story
Casto Hernández Hernández (right) with his pastor
Casto Hernández Hernández and his cousin Juan Placido Hernández Hernández were first imprisoned and then forcibly displaced in March 2015 after they refused to renounce their Protestant beliefs. Despite the open admission by a village leader in early court hearings that he had attempted to force the men to change their religious beliefs, the case dragged on for almost eleven months, with the Public Ministry repeatedly cancelling or postponing hearings [See more].
Agreement on religious freedom allows the men to return home
On 2 February, the Public Ministry in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico, reached a decision and put in place an agreement between Casto Hernández and Juan Placido Hernández and authorities from the village of Chichiltepec.
The agreement – drafted by the lawyers affiliated with CSW’s Mexican partner Impulso 18 and endorsed by the Public Ministry – guarantees total freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in the village of Chichiltepec and Casto and Juan Placido’s right to return, with their full religious rights recognised.
According to the director of Impulso 18, Jorge Lee, the village authorities came to the meeting prepared to fight. When they realized they were ‘one step away from going to jail’, however, they changed their position, signed agreement and promised to uphold religious freedom in Chichiltepec.
While none of the village authorities spent any time in prison despite their criminal actions, we, and most importantly Casto and Juan Placido, feel that this agreed outcome is the right course of action.
It establishes their constitutional rights in a very clear way but also allows them to re-join their community in as harmoniously a way as possible. The concern was that if the authorities were thrown in prison, the levels of hostility would be so high, and the rupture in the indigenous community network so profound that it would be impossible for the two men to ever return home.
In October 2014, the Chinese Communist Party announced that rule of law would be a top priority for the country. However, just one year later, over 150 lawyers and 150 more colleagues, family members and other activists had been questioned, detained, or disappeared in a crackdown which began on 9 July 2015.
Journalists and legal experts have speculated about what ‘strengthening rule of law’ might mean for China’s ruling Party: whatever it means, it doesn’t seem to include rights lawyers.