The EU, US, and other governments should use all opportunities with the Chinese government, including their upcoming "human rights dialogues," to send clear messages that the arrests and disappearances of dozens of the country's most prominent lawyers, human rights defenders, and internet activists over the past few weeks are unacceptable. These governments should also reiterate that China is in breach of its international human rights obligations, and that these human rights abuses must be urgently addressed and reversed.
"The current crackdown on activists in China is the most severe in a decade," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Governments concerned with human rights in China should not continue with ‘business as usual' while peaceful critics are being locked up one by one."
Since February 16, 2011, up to 25 lawyers, activists, and bloggers have been detained, arrested, or "disappeared" by state authorities. Between 100 and 200 other people have been subjected to an array of repressive measures ranging from police summonses to house arrest. The government has also significantly increased its censorship of the internet, forced several liberal newspaper editors to step down, and imposed new restrictions on foreign media reporting in Beijing.
Six of the country's most prominent human rights lawyers - Teng Biao, Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong, Liu Shihui, Tang Jingling, and Li Tiantian - have been "disappeared" by the police since mid-March and are at serious risk of torture and ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said. Sources close to Tang Jitian say he has been severely tortured. Liu Shihui was violently assaulted by law enforcement agents shortly before he disappeared.
Three prominent civil society advocates, Ran Yunfei, Ding Mao, and Chen Wei, were formally arrested between March 25 and March 28 on charges of "incitement to subvert state power and overthrow the socialist system" and could face lengthy jail terms. On March 25, a veteran democracy activist, Liu Xianbin, was sentenced to 10 years in prison under the same charges for a series of articles published on overseas websites.
Others who have been detained and may face subversion charges include the bloggers and activists Cheng Wei, Guo Weidong, Hua Chunhui, Liang Haiyi, Liu Huiping, Quan Lianzhao, Sun Desheng, and Zhu Yufu. The whereabouts of over a dozen of other activists taken away by the police remain unknown.
Indefinite house arrest and enforced disappearances - when the authorities fail to acknowledge holding someone in custody or provide no information on the person's fate or whereabouts - are increasingly a feature of the suppression of rights activists and their relatives, Human Rights Watch said.
Other prominent recent cases that predate the current crackdown include that of Liu Xia, the wife of the Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo. Liu Xia was placed under house arrest and has been progressively deprived of freedom to communicate with the outside world after the announcement of the prize in October 2010. Chen Guangcheng, a rural legal activist, has been imprisoned in his home since his release from prison in September; and Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer, has been missing for most of the past two years and has conveyed several detailed accounts of torture at the hands of the police.
At the same time, the Chinese government has become increasingly aggressive in its refusal to account for its use of arbitrary detention and disappearances. On March 29, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson asserted that, "Any accusations [about disappearances] like this regarding China are groundless, and there are ulterior motives behind them." This statement followed his warning several days earlier that, "For people who want to make trouble in China, no law can protect them."
On March 7, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi replied to questions about the beatings of several foreign journalists in Beijing by the police, which were caught on camera and broadcast around the world, saying, "There is no such issue as Chinese police officers beating foreign journalists."
"The Chinese government's refusal to account for people known to be in custody should immediately and publicly be challenged in all major diplomatic forums, including the UN Human Rights Council," Richardson said. "The Chinese government needs to answer for the large-scale suppression of peaceful critics who have done nothing more than ask the state to respect its own laws."
In recent months, some members of the international community have stressed China's obligations under international law, and others should follow suit, Human Rights Watch said. The UN high commissioner on human rights, Navanethem Pillay, called on "the Chinese authorities to release any person detained for peacefully exercising his or her right to freedom of expression" on March 24. The US ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, paid a symbolic visit to the disabled rights lawyer Ni Yulan in early February. On March 28, the UN's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called on the Chinese government not only to release Gao Zhisheng, but also to make reparations to him based on the illegality of his treatment.
Yet relatively few governments and agencies have expressed public concern about the crackdown. The international community's response has not been commensurate with the scale and severity of the deterioration of the human rights situation in China, and too many governments continue to rely too heavily on upcoming "human rights dialogues" to address the situation.
These bilateral dialogues by the EU, US, and other countries have failed to deliver substantial results over the years, Human Rights Watch said. In fact, the dialogues have sometimes become a convenient means of moving sensitive human rights discussions out of summit meetings and other high-level political dialogues and meetings with China.
"These meetings risk becoming hollow, opaque affairs, with no participation from human rights defenders, no public scrutiny and an inherent political incentive from both sides to present the outcome of the human rights dialogues as ‘progress,'" Richardson said. "If these dialogues are to be meaningful, enforced disappearances and arrests of civil society activists must be at the center of all high-level discussions with the Chinese government and raised in the world's leading human rights forum: the UN Human Rights Council."
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