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(New York) -- The Chinese government should immediately release Ye Guozhu, a housing rights activist who was arrested after he applied for legal permission to hold a protest march, Human Rights Watch said today. Like thousands of others in Beijing, Ye and his family were forcibly evicted to make way for construction reportedly related to the 2008 Olympics.

The arrest of Ye Guozhu is the most prominent in a series of alarming government clampdowns on growing protests against forced evictions. Police detained Ye Guozhu in August three days after he applied for permission to hold a 10,000-person march, but only formally charged him last week. Following the forcible eviction last year of his family from their Beijing home, Ye Guozhu and his son, Ye Mingjun, have been homeless, but both remain prominent figures in the housing rights movement.

Last October his younger brother, Ye Guoqiang, attempted suicide to protest the forced eviction of their family from their Beijing home. After jumping into the Jinshui River near Tiananmen Square, he was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for disturbing social order.

“As construction booms in China’s cities, the authorities are forcibly evicting hundreds of thousands of people who have little legal recourse,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “But in Beijing, the Olympics are such a sensitive issue that people like Ye Guozhu are imprisoned simply for requesting a permit to protest these evictions.”

The Ye family has been at the forefront of the housing rights movement in China. In August, Ye Guozhu applied with Tianjin-based activist Zheng Mingfang, lawyer Ni Yulan and others for permission to hold a 10,000-person protest in mid-September, when the Communist Party Central Committee holds its annual meeting. Ye was detained on August 27, and Zheng’s house was searched by police.

“Ye Guozhu was arrested on ‘suspicion of disturbing social order’ after he filed an application asking permission to protest,” said Adams. “In fact, he was trying to comply with Chinese law. The rule of law remains an illusion for many in China who resist forced eviction from their homes.”

Human Rights Watch’s March 25 report, "Demolished: Forced Evictions and the Tenants' Rights Movement in China," documented the problems many Chinese citizens face as they are forcibly evicted from their homes. The report also details how senior Chinese legal experts and even some government-controlled news media have openly criticized the government's failure to protect the rights of homeowners and tenants.

In response to growing unrest, the Chinese government has passed some legal reforms in the past year, including a constitutional amendment to protect property rights. However, these appear to have had little effect on the ground.

In the past year, tens of thousands of people have traveled to Beijing to file formal complaints—or “petitions”— against forced evictions, police brutality, official corruption and other abuses. In Beijing, police reportedly wait outside complaints offices to turn away petitioners, preventing them from exercising their legal right to seek redress. Many petitioners are also seized and sent back to their hometowns before they are able to file their complaints. There have been numerous reports of police brutality against petitioners, some resulting in death. In response, many are protesting publicly. Ye Guozhu organized a number of mass protests last year.

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