(New York) - The Chinese government should immediately lift the house arrest and travel restrictions imposed on Hu Jia and Zeng Jinyan, a prominent husband-and-wife team of human rights activists arrested on Friday, Human Rights Watch said today.
Hu and Zeng, two of China’s most well-known campaigners for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, were placed under house arrest and banned from leaving the country on May 18. During a four-hour interrogation at a Beijing police station, police told Hu that the couple was “suspected of harming state security.”
“The Chinese government ought to be grateful to Hu and Zeng for educating and assisting people living with HIV/AIDS, but instead it is punishing them,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Their work isn’t a threat to national security, but the government’s attempt to stifle AIDS activists is a threat to public health.”
Minutes before the couple was to board a flight for a two-month trip to Europe, Hu and Zeng were detained by eight police officers – two of whom filmed the proceedings. The police at no point provided any official documents showing the basis for Hu and Zeng’s house arrest and travel ban.
Hu, a human rights activist who has monitored and reported on arrests and harassment of high-profile individuals, spent 214 days under house arrest between August 2006 and March 2007. The couple made a documentary film about their house arrest, “Prisoners of Freedom City,” which records their surveillance by state security and police over that seven-month period.
Last week, Time magazine named Zeng as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Her blog
documents the routine surveillance and harassment by security forces that China’s activists and dissidents must endure.
“I had never expected that the police would restrict me as well as Hu Jia,” Zeng wrote on her blog. “I am already three months pregnant. What is to be feared from me and my child?” She expressed her astonishment that the authorities would subject both her and her husband to house arrest for legally pursuing their rights of free expression and association.
In April, Hu released a transcript of a conversation he had with a prominent human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, in which Gao claimed that he had been forced to “confess” under torture. Gao received a suspended sentence in December for a charge of “subversion” in a trial that fell short of international fair-trial standards.
The house arrest order confines Hu and Zeng to their home in Beijing and severely limits their freedom of movement and association, as well as their ability to contact friends and relatives.
“China’s systematic use of house arrest and state security charges against human rights defenders seriously undermines the government’s claims that it respects the rights of its citizens,” said Adams. “The Chinese government should immediately end the practice of house arrest and the use of dubious, politically motivated charges against activists.”
House arrest is just one of the many administrative measures that Chinese authorities can deploy against dissidents and human rights activists without having to formally charge and prosecute them under Chinese law. The Chinese government appears to be increasing its use of house arrest on grounds of loosely defined state security crimes as a means of quelling public expressions of dissent in the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
Hu stated earlier this year that he was planning to “push the space for freedoms, especially freedom of expression,” in the period leading up to the Beijing Olympics in August 2008. But with a spate of arrests of activists, lawyers and journalists in the past two years, China is moving in the opposite direction. Despite its recent, more forceful response to the AIDS epidemic, the authorities have also repeatedly harassed AIDS activists, most recently detaining 79-year-old Dr. Gao Yaojie in February.
“With the Olympics on the horizon, Beijing should know that its actions are being closely watched by the rest of the world,” Adams said. “Is the house arrest of two internationally known activists really the image that China wants to project to the world?”