(New York) - The Chinese government should immediately exonerate and release imprisoned grassroots legal defender Ji Sizun, Human Rights Watch said today. Ji's efforts to protest during the 2008 Beijing Olympics reportedly resulted in a three-year prison term, handed down on January 7, 2009, for "forging official seals and documents."

Ji, 58, a self-described grassroots legal activist from Fujian province, was arrested on August 11, 2008, after applying for a permit to hold a protest in one of Beijing's three official "protest zones" designated for public use during the August 8-24, 2008, Beijing Olympic Games. Ji's protest application, filed at Deshengmenwai police station in Beijing's Xicheng District on August 8, stated that his planned protest would call for greater participation of Chinese citizens in political processes, and denounce rampant official corruption and abuses of power. Ji was detained after returning to the police station three days later to check on the progress of his application's approval.

"Ji Sizun's conviction is just the latest betrayal of the Chinese government's promises that the Beijing Olympics would foster greater development of human rights in China," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "It's four months after the 2008 Beijing Games ended, and the Chinese government is still punishing people like Ji Sizun for merely trusting official promises that citizens would be permitted to peacefully protest during the Olympics."

Ji was just one of dozens of Chinese citizens who responded to the July 23, 2008, announcement by Liu Shaowu, the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG) security director, that "people or protesters who want to express their personal opinions can go to do so" in line with "common practice in other countries." The Chinese government typically does not tolerate public protests; those that do occur are very quickly broken up and their participants detained. Over the following week, 149 people filed a total of 77 applications.

On August 18, China's official Xinhua News Agency announced that authorities had not approved any of them. Xinhua said that 74 of the cases were "properly addressed by relevant authorities or departments through consultations," without providing any details. The Chinese government imposed a tight security cordon around all three official protest zones in order to avert any spontaneous protests at the sites, although several surprise protests by advocates of Tibetan independence occurred in Beijing during the course of the Games.

The Chinese government made human rights improvements an explicit component of its bid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the 2008 Games. Human Rights Watch and other organizations extensively documented rights abuses related to the Beijing Games, including media freedom restrictions, violations of the rights of migrant workers, and abuses linked to evictions and demolitions to build Olympics infrastructure. However, the IOC consistently failed to speak out forcefully about human rights abuses directly related to the preparations for and execution of the Beijing Olympics. An official IOC review of the Beijing Olympics released in November 2008 praised the Games as an "indisputable success" without mention of the numerous documented Olympic-related human rights and press freedom violations.

"It is hard to square any measure of ‘success' with freedom of expression being crushed," said Richardson. "It is incumbent on the IOC to publicly protest Ji's conviction to the Chinese government, and to adopt a permanent human rights mechanism for evaluating and benchmarking future prospective Olympic host cities."

Human Rights Watch said that Ji's conviction is part of a broader campaign against dissent and perceived threats to the Chinese Communist Party's one-party rule linked to official concerns about possible unrest in 2009. Those concerns have been heightened by rising unemployment related to the global financial crisis and a series of highly sensitive anniversaries on the Chinese government's calendar this year, including the 20th anniversary of the June 3-4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1. The tightening on dissent in recent weeks has included:

  • January 7, 2009: China Human Rights Defenders reported that Wang Rongqing, a member of the Zhejiang province chapter of the outlawed China Democracy Party was sentenced to six years of imprisonment for "subversion of state power" by Hangzhou City Intermediate People's Court in Zhejiang province.
  • December 18, 2008: a Beijing court sentenced housing activist Ni Yulan to two years of imprisonment for "obstructing official duties." Ni's conviction was linked to events on April 15, 2008, when without warning, more than a dozen workers and police knocked down the wall surrounding Ni's house in Qianzheng hutong, in the central Xicheng district of Beijing. According to her husband, Dong Jiqin, when Ni tried to protect her home, she was hit on the head with a brick and dragged to the ground by one of the demolition workers. Police detained Ni and accused her of assaulting a demolition worker.
  • December 8, 2008: police detained Liu Xioabo under "residential surveillance." Liu is a writer, a former Beijing Normal University professor, the director of the independent Chinese PEN Center, and a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Liu's detention, which his lawyer has since described as "residential surveillance," came just hours after the circulation of an online petition he helped organize which calls for greater development of human rights and the reform of China's one-party political system. Many of the other original 303 signatories of the petition, Charter '08, which represent a cross-section of China's intelligentsia and include dissidents, scholars, journalists and artists, have been the targets of Chinese police harassment and intimidation.

The Chinese government's conviction of Ji and its ongoing harassment, intimidation, and detention of other dissidents is occurring just weeks ahead of the United Nation's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of China's human rights record on February 9, 2009, in Geneva. Moreover, the crackdown is occurring despite the announced release sometime early this year of the Chinese government's new official "human rights action plan."

"If the Chinese government wants the world to take seriously its claims that its citizens ‘... have freedom of speech ... (and the) right to criticize and make suggestions to any state organs,' it needs to exonerate and release Ji Sizun immediately," Richardson said.  "The Chinese government should be aware that its imminent ‘national human rights action plan' will not be credible so long as the government continues to persecute citizens for trying to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights."