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(New York) – The Chinese government’s crackdown on activists and civil liberties shows little sign of abating, even though the tense 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre has passed, Human Rights Watch said today.

Many of those detained ahead of the anniversary on June 4, 2014, have remained in custody, and some have been formally arrested. Courts have handed down sentences as harsh as six and a half years for peaceful protests against corruption. It appears likely that in the coming weeks more activists, including the prominent Guangzhou activist Guo Feixiong, will be prosecuted on highly questionable charges.

“The authorities’ already-limited tolerance for activism has significantly shrunk in recent months and, increasingly, peaceful speech is being treated as criminal,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The intention appears to be to make everyone think twice before they act, as there is no telling what people will be detained for next.”

A wide range of activists – some more prominent than others, some involved in activities directly related June 4 and others less so – have been detained. For example:

  • In Henan Province, at least nine activists, including two lawyers, Chang Boyang and Ji Laisong, have been detained since May 27 on suspicion of “gathering crowds to disturb public order.” They are held, sources say, for participating in an activity in February commemorating the Tiananmen anniversary.
  • In Guangdong Province, three activists, including a lawyer, Tang Jingling, have been detained since May 16. They were first detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up troubles” but formally arrested on June 20 for the more serious crime of “inciting subversion.” Their alleged crime is related to their promotion of the concept of nonviolent civil disobedience in Guangzhou.
  • In Beijing, prominent lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was formally arrested on June 13 for “picking quarrels and stirring up troubles,” and “illegally obtaining citizens’ personal information.” The basis of the charges against Pu is not clear.
  • A journalist, Gao Yu, has been detained since April 24 for “leaking state secrets.” Gao allegedly provided a certain “secret document” of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee to a foreign website, which published it in full and it was reposted on a number of other websites, official media reports said. The authorities have not clarified which document she allegedly leaked, but scholars and journalists believe it to be Document Number Nine, which warned Chinese officials to be vigilant about “seven subversive elements” in society, including “universal values” such as human rights, media reports said.

These detentions ahead of the Tiananmen anniversary are part of a wider crackdown since early 2014, when the authorities targeted activists involved in the New Citizens Movement, an informal group that has advocated civic rights and citizen participation. Since then, nine New Citizens Movement activists have been imprisoned, including its founder, the prominent legal scholar Xu Zhiyong. The nine were sentenced to between 18 months and six-and-a-half years in prison.

Among the nine New Citizens Movement activists, Liu Ping and Wei Zhongping, from Jiangxi Province, were given the heaviest sentences: six-and-a-half years. On June 19 Liu and Wei were sentenced for “picking quarrels and stirring up troubles,” “using cults to undermine implementation of the law,” and “gathering crowds to disturb public order.” The third defendant in the same trial, Li Sihua, got three years for “picking quarrels and stirring up troubles.”

Many of the activists detained and imprisoned, including Pu, Liu, Wei, and Li, have been prosecuted on public order charges, such as “picking quarrels and stirring up troubles,” a vaguely-worded crime that has been used by the authorities to punish peaceful behavior. For example, according to the court verdict on Liu and Wei, the basis for conviction included “gathering, holding placards, taking photos, writing articles, being interviewed by foreign media on mobile phones, uploading these photos and articles online and distributing them.”

Many of the detained activists have also been denied access to legal counsel. Effective January 2013, the revised Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) allows for better access to lawyers, and in practice some lawyers have reported better access to ordinary criminal defendants.

But the revised CPL also allows police to deny lawyers’ access to detained suspects for three categories of crimes – terrorism, major corruption, and endangering state security – without approval by investigators for the case. It appears that police increasingly decide that cases fall into one of these categories and use other even more questionable excuses to prevent access to lawyers. Recent examples include:

  • Henan police have denied lawyers’ requests to meet the nine detained activists for a month because the case involves “state security.” But it is unclear how their conduct might violate state security, as they have been charged under the public order charge of “gathering crowds to disturb public order.”
  • The Uighur academic Ilham Tohti, detained in Beijing on January 15 but transferred to Urumqi, where he was arrested for “separatism,” was not allowed access to his lawyer, Li Fangping, for over five months. Police rejected Li’s requests on the grounds that the case “endangers state security.” Li eventually met Tohti on June 26. Tohti told Li that he had been denied food for 10 days following the March 1 attack on the train station in Kunming, which was attributed by authorities to Uighurs.
  • Zhang Sizhi, Gao Yu’s lawyer, has also been denied access to his client. When Zhang first attempted to see Gao on May 15, police told him that, “there is no such person,” a questionable claim given that state media had broadcast her confession on national TV a few days earlier. Zhang believes that police had registered Gao under a pseudonym, a practice sometimes used for political detainees. Police subsequently said Zhang is not allowed to meet with her because she is “under interrogation.”

The denial of access to legal counsel heightens the risk of torture and mistreatment in detention. Some of these detained activists are also in poor health, such as Pu, who has diabetes. Although he is receiving some medicines and medical treatment, conditions and quality of medical care in China’s detention center are generally poor. The Beijing activist Cao Shunli’s health deteriorated rapidly following her detention in September 2013 but authorities refused until February to transfer her to a hospital, where she died a few weeks later.

Domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations are also experiencing increasing state scrutiny. On June 17, police searched the Zhengzhou City, Henan province office of the anti-discrimination organization Yirenping. The police took away two computers and some financial documents, and briefly took a staff member to the police station for questioning. Five days earlier, police had frozen the office’s bank account. Police told Yirenping staff that they are investigating Chang Boyang, the organization’s lawyer.

According to media reports, China’s National Security Commission has been investigating foreign organizations and their activities in China between May and July. Scrutiny is focusing on the groups’ staffing, relationships with Chinese counterparts, their projects, and funding, to develop ways to “strengthen…their management.” It is unclear what such “management” might entail.

“Not only is China detaining activists simply for peaceful activities, it is also increasingly denying them contact with lawyers, and keeping a closer watch on independent organizations,” Richardson said. “All these are major steps backward for China’s human rights.”

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