Skip to main content

On November 4, 2015, Zhang Liumao’s family got the call no one wants to receive. Their grief was multiplied, because the news of Zhang’s death was the first information they had received about him since the activist was taken away by police on August 15.

The charge? “Creating a disturbance,” a crime often used against activists. Like many detainees, Zhang had not been allowed to meet with his lawyers and, in violation of Chinese law, his family never received a formal arrest notice, neither before nor after the 37-day legal limit within which a person must be either formally arrested or freed.

That same day, Zhang’s family and their lawyers went to Guangzhou No.3 Detention Center, where Zhang had been held, to seek answers. But staff there refused the family’s request to meet with the center’s prosecutor, who is tasked with overseeing detention conditions, and authorities obstructed the family’s efforts to view Zhang’s body.

While Zhang’s family has vowed to press ahead in their quest for accountability, the prospects are dim.  

Zhang’s incommunicado detention was disturbingly similar to the detention of many other activists under President Xi Jinping’s crackdown, particularly those still held following the July round-up of lawyers. And it followed a pair of high-profile deaths of activists in custody.

In March 2014, Beijing activist Cao Shunli died days after she was hospitalized, after months of detention; in July 2015, revered Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche died after years in prison. Both had been known to be seriously ill.

These deaths all clearly demonstrate the authorities’ unwillingness to uphold their own regulations. The Rules on the Handling of Deaths in Detention Centers require the authorities to conduct an immediate investigation that includes procedures such as viewing and preserving surveillance video and questioning fellow detainees. But neither Shunli nor Rinpoche’s deaths were investigated, nor has any officer been held accountable.

As Human Rights Watch recently documented, torture and ill-treatment of criminal suspects, and denial of access to family members, independent lawyers, and doctors are routine, and political detainees are at especially high risk of torture.  

As Beijing prepares to be reviewed by the United Nations Committee Against Torture on November 17 and 18, the authorities now have a chance to show that the country’s own laws are not just empty promises. They should ensure that Zhang’s death – and all deaths in custody – are thoroughly investigated.


Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country