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Dispatches: The Death of a Defender in China
March 14, 2014

Cao Shunli died today.  She was 52 and was last publicly seen in September 2013, when she was detained by police at the Beijing airport attempting to board a flight to Geneva.  She had planned to participate in a training session on human rights ahead of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of China. 

She never arrived. After her disappearance, Chinese authorities refused to disclose any information about her whereabouts for weeks until she was formally charged in October first with “illegal assembly” and then with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” 

Chinese officials have claimed in recent days that, “No one suffers reprisal for taking part in lawful activities or international mechanisms.”  “Citizens have the right to criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or official.” “There is no so-called issue of suppressing ‘human rights defenders’.”

These statements should be at the core of all other governments’ interventions in Geneva next week, at the final phase of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of China.

Over the course of 2013, Ms. Cao, a longtime activist, came to particular attention precisely for pressuring Beijing to allow genuine, independent civil society views to feed into the drafting of the government’s report to the Universal Periodic Review process. Cao submitted public letters and organized peaceful protests in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanding governmental transparency in the drafting process and civil society participation. Throughout her subsequent months in detention, her lawyer and family members called attention to her worsening medical condition, and she was diagnosed in November 2013 by a prison doctor with illnesses including pneumonia in both lungs.

Her family repeatedly requested she be granted medical parole, but only when she fell into a coma in February 2014 did prison officials transfer her to a Beijing hospital. Police then focused on pressuring her family to accept medical parole for her, which would take the authorities off the hook for endangering her life. Police also took into custody five of Cao’s supporters who went to the hospital while she was in critical condition.

Everything about the circumstances of her case – the harassment she faced, her arbitrary detention, the ludicrous and legally baseless charges against her, the reluctance or refusal to swiftly grant access to adequate medical care – suggests it’s unlikely the Chinese government will voluntarily agree to an independent, credible investigation into her death. But with her passing, the onus is on all those concerned about human rights in China to battle for the kind of transparency for which Cao paid with her life.   

As China goes before the Human Rights Council on March 19 to defend its dubious claims to respect rights, it should be made to answer for Cao’s death and to promise that those responsible are held accountable.