(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately release the prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and drop all charges against him, Human Rights Watch said today. Pu was formally arrested for the crimes of “creating a disturbance” and “illegally obtaining citizens’ personal information” on June 13, 2014, according to Chinese press reports.
“Pu’s ‘crime’ appears to be nothing more than peacefully pushing the legal system to follow its own laws,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “By arresting Pu, President Xi has gutted his own commitments to the rule of law, and halted the work of someone critical to legal reform efforts.”
The crime of “creating a disturbance” carries up to ten years in prison and the crime of “illegally obtaining citizens’ personal information” carries up to three years in prison. Pu could be sentenced to up to 13 years if convicted of both charges. Beijing police also stated that they are conducting further investigations on Pu’s other suspected crimes. In an earlier weibo post, his lawyer Zhang Sizhi has expressed fears that Pu’s sentence will be lengthy. The basis for these two charges is not yet clear.
After attending a small seminar in Beijing on the Tiananmen Massacre with more than a dozen other activists on May 3, Beijing police took Pu from his home late on the evening of May 4. Pu was detained on May 6 on the charge of “creating a disturbance.” Four other participants taken into custody on the same charge have been released. Pu is being held at Beijing Number 1 Detention Center.
Pu, who has diabetes, has received access to insulin, diabetes medication, and one trip to the hospital. But his lawyer said that he is being interrogated nearly every day for up to 10 hours a day, and that as a result his legs are swollen. Pu’s lawyer earlier submitted a request to have him released on medical grounds, but the application was denied. In China’s detention centers, medical care is rudimentary at best. In March 2014, Beijing activist Cao Shunli died after her health deteriorated while in detention.
Pu, 49, was a student activist who participated in the pro-democracy protests of 1989. After the Tiananmen Massacre, he became a lawyer and taught law for three years at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute, now the Beijing Communications University. He is now one of China’s most prominent lawyers and is featured regularly in the mainstream Chinese press. In 2013, he was chosen by the state-run magazine China Newsweek as the most influential person in promoting the rule of law.
Pu is best known for advocating the abolition of the abusive administrative detention system known as Re-education Through Labor by representing detainees in a number of high-profile cases. Pu is also known for his public criticism in February 2013 of the powerful former Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang. Zhou has not been seen in public for months and is the subject of a secretive corruption investigation, media reports have said.
This is the first time Pu has been put under criminal detention and arrest. Pu has in recent years been subjected to regular police questioning. Police detained him briefly after he spoke to the media about the October 2010 announcement that the Chinese writer and activist Liu Xiaobo would receive that year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Since President Xi Jinping came into power in March 2013, his government has further restricted already meager civil and political freedoms. It has initiated an internet crackdown on “online rumors” and “pornography,” detained “big Vs” (online opinion leaders), closed WeChat and QQ accounts en masse, and issued judicial interpretation expanding existing definitions of crime to include peaceful online expression. It has detained dozens of activists on public order charges, including well-known moderates such as the New Citizens Movement founder Xu Zhiyong and the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti.
Lawyers in particular have been under increasing attack. In March 2014, four prominent human rights lawyers were detained and some tortured when trying to meet with clients in Heilongjiang Province. In May, just ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, a number of lawyers were put under criminal detention.
Tang Jingling was detained for “creating a disturbance” in Guangdong Province; Liu Shihui in Shanghai; and Chang Boyang and Ji Laisong for “gathering crowds to disturb public order” in Henan Province. Tang, Chang, and Ji remain in detention. These lawyers have represented victims of human rights violations in a wide variety of cases, ranging from land evictions to tainted milk powder to discrimination.
The government has taken other steps that indicate a more hardline stance toward human rights in the past year. Based on media reports, the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee issued Document No. 9, a warning to party members directing them to fight seven perils undermining its rule, including “universal values” and activism.
Another document issued jointly by the party’s central organization department, propaganda department, and the Education Ministry’s party committee at around the same time, calls on universities to strengthen the “ideological education” of young lecturers. The Chinese government has also required mainland journalists to pass ideological exams to keep their official press cards.
“That Beijing sees Pu, Xu, Tohti, and others as threats who must be silenced – not as essential assets in the struggle for a functional legal system – is a powerful indicator of just how far the situation has deteriorated in the past year,” Richardson said. “Unless Pu and others are released, President Xi’s legal reform rhetoric rings increasingly hollow.”