(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately release human rights activists Tang Jingling, Yuan Xinting, and Wang Qingying and drop all charges against them, Human Rights Watch said today. The three will be tried for allegedly “inciting subversion,” which can carry sentences of up to 15 years in prison, on June 19, 2015, by the Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court.
The government’s overbroad interpretation of what constitutes subversion comes into direct conflict with article 35 of China’s Constitution, which guarantees citizens’ freedom of expression, and international standards on freedom of expression.
“While top Chinese leaders trumpet the importance of the ‘rule of law,’ Guangzhou authorities appear uninterested in creating even the appearance of delivering justice,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Trials like these send a clear signal to all that they should not expect a fair trial, but rather harsh retaliation for peaceful activism.”
The case has been marred by multiple procedural violations. According to Wang Qingying’s lawyer, Wang has been repeatedly beaten by fellow detainees and guards, forced to wear handcuffs and leg irons for a total of 15 days, and subjected to forced labor every day. The authorities have also refused one of the lawyers’ requests to copy case material and denied the defendants’ right to communicate with their families. Tang Jingling was unable to meet with one of his lawyers for at least two months after he was taken into custody; all three activists’ lawyers have repeatedly been denied regular access to their clients. Chinese law requires police permission before lawyers can meet with their clients in cases involving state security, terrorism, or major corruption, and police have often used this as a basis for denying political suspects of the basic right to legal counsel.
According to the indictment, their crimes included “publicly inciting others to participate in non-violent civil disobedience movement.” The indictment characterizes Tang’s, Yuan’s, and Wang’s distribution and discussion with others’ publications on ending dictatorships through peaceful means, as well as publicizing these ideas in gatherings of activists, as evidence for “inciting subversion.” The books distributed include those authored by Gene Sharp, a scholar of nonviolent movements around the world, such as From Dictatorship to Democracy, which the indictment characterizes as containing “serious political mistakes.”
Tang, Yuan, and Wang were taken into custody in May 2014, and initially detained for the crime of “creating disturbances.” Most suspects in China are held in pretrial detention for months before seeing a judge, even though international standards require that anyone taken into police custody be promptly brought before a judge, normally within 48 hours of being apprehended. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued a decision in November 2014 that their ongoing detentions were arbitrary, and that they should be released “immediately.”
Tang, 44, is a well-known human rights lawyer; Yuan, also 44, is a freelance writer and former editor; Wang, 31, was a teacher at a Guangzhou college. Tang, Yuan, and Wang initiated and participated in numerous human rights activities in Guangdong province over the past decade, and have lost jobs because of their activism. Tang, for example, was dismissed from his law firm after he provided legal aid to villagers in Taishi, Guangdong province in 2005, as they sought to remove an allegedly corrupt village leader from office. The three have never been imprisoned before.
Human Rights Watch identified the detentions of Tang, Yuan, and Wang as part of the broader crackdown on civil society since mid-2013, when President Xi Jinping formally assumed power. The government has detained, arrested, and disappeared hundreds of activists since then, further restricted freedom of expression on the internet, in the press and in universities, as well as issued calls for stricter adherence of Party ideology and for greater hostility toward “universal values” including human rights.
“Reading and debating books is no crime, nor is it a basis for mistreatment, torture, or denying basic rights to a fair trial,” Richardson said. “If anyone has made a ‘serious political mistake,’ it’s the authorities who seek to crush peaceful debate about China’s future.”