Update: On October 25th, Hu Jia left Beijing under police escort for the family's hometown in Anhui Province. Police instructed him not to return to Beijing until after the 18th Party Congress in late November, and not to go online to make public statements.
(New York) – The Chinese government should end the unlawful house arrest of the prominent activist Hu Jia. In recent weeks, Hu Jia has been prevented from leaving his home for even essential functions except for getting medical care, a marked increase in the restrictions on his movement. His current period of house arrest is his longest deprivation of liberty since his release from prison in June 2011.
“The hardening of the harsh measures taken against Hu Jia may be a sign of what lies ahead for other activists as the 18th Party Congress approaches,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Unlawful house arrest is a tactic employed by a police state, not by a country that claims to be governed according to law.”
Since September 18, 2012, Hu Jia, one of China’s most prominent human rights activists and recipient of the 2008 Sakharov prize, has been prohibited by the police from leaving his home except for getting medical care. Some seven to eight domestic security police officers guard around the clock Hu Jia’s apartment in “Bobo Freedom City,” a residential block of apartment towers in Beijing’s Tongzhou District, and prevent him from going out to purchase basic necessities, visit family, or meet friends. Hu Jia is only allowed to go out, followed by police officers, to get medical treatment for a chronic liver ailment.
On September 19 police officers blocked him from leaving to visit his parents, insulting him for 40 minutes, calling him a “traitor,” and threatening him with unspecified “consequences” if he did not remove online posts that “sold out his country.” During a similar incident that took place in early September 2012, police officers physically assaulted him to prevent him from going out, injuring his elbow and chest.
Following his release in June 2011 from three-and-a-half years in prison for his human rights activism, Hu Jia continued to be a vocal rights advocate, assisting the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng when Chen escaped from 19 months of house arrest in April 2012, and speaking out for imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia, who is also under house arrest. In July 2012, police refused to renew Hu’s passport and travel documents for Hong Kong and Macau, making it impossible for him to visit his wife and daughter who now reside in Hong Kong.
“House arrest has become the Chinese government’s tactic of choice to intimidate and silence dissidents,” Richardson said. “With no basis in law whatsoever, it is the embodiment of an arbitrary and politically-motivated measure.”
Other people currently living under long-term house arrests include Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo, and Feng Zhenghu, a prominent Shanghai activist and legal advocate.
- Liu Xia, who has never been charged with or convicted of any crime, has been confined at her home in Beijing since October 2010, a situation she has likened to being a “hostage of the state.” Two policewomen tasked with monitoring her have moved into her home, and guards are stationed in and around her compound. She is not allowed to go out except in police company for occasional visits to her mother and close friends, according to a recent BBC report citing a friend of the family. Every two to three months, police permit Liu Xia to visit Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” in Heilongjiang province, nearly 500 kilometers from Beijing.
- Feng Zhenghu, best known for camping out at a Japanese airport for 12 weeks in 2009 to denounce the Chinese government’s illegal refusal to allow him to re-enter the country, has been confined at his home by the police since February 2012. He is not allowed to leave home except to be taken away for police interrogations. A security detail of about two dozen policemen guard him around the clock, and police searched his home several times since February. Several officers physically assaulted him when he tried to leave his apartment to accompany his wife to a doctor on September 19.
The use of house arrest – or ruanjin (“soft detention”), in police parlance – often increases around occasions on which the Chinese government seeks to silence critics without attracting the international attention brought by formal detention. Past National Peoples’ Congresses, the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, and the period following the Arab Spring each brought dozens of cases of house arrest. There is no basis in Chinese law for house arrest, and it is therefore unclear to people when they will be subject to it, or when it will end, if ever. People placed under “soft detention” are subject to highly arbitrary treatment, and do not know in advance whether or not they can leave their home, shop for necessities, receive visitors, communicate by phone or internet, or even seek medical treatment. Even when they are allowed to go out, they are followed by police or made to travel in police vehicles. There is no process by which “soft detention” can be appealed.
In public and diplomatic settings the extra-judicial character of the “soft detention” regime allows the government to deny that it is imposing restrictions on individuals, as it did for years in the case of Chen Guangcheng, who spent more than 19 months imprisoned at his home in Shandong province, or as it is doing currently for Liu Xia. When asked about Liu Xia’s incommunicado house arrest on October 13, 2010, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated: “I don’t know who you’re talking about and I am not aware of this matter.”
The government also uses house arrest for shorter periods of time, during what the government considers to be sensitive political periods, such as the run up to the anniversary of the June 1989 massacre, the annual National People’s Congress meetings, or the National Congress of the Communist Party, held every five years. The 18th Party Congress, which will formalize the leadership transition at the head of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese state, is due to open on November 8, 2012.
“The practice of placing prominent critics under house arrest must end,” Richardson said. “One test for the new leadership is whether they free people like Hu Jia and Liu Xia and refrain from such tactics in the future.”