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(New York) – Chinese authorities should drop all charges against prominent rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and free him immediately. Pu is on trial before the Beijing Number 2 Intermediate People’s Court for alleged crimes of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “creating a disturbance” for seven microblog, or “Weibo,” posts that he published online between July 2011 and May 2014.

Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang talks to media in Beijing in this July 20, 2012 picture. © 2012 Reuters

“Nothing Pu Zhiqiang has written has violated any law, but the authorities’ treatment of him certainly has,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “A guilty verdict will be an indictment of the Chinese government, its law, and its legal system – not of Pu.”

Pu posted the seven Weibo comments a total of 12 times between July 2011 and May 2014. The prosecution alleges that three of them, criticizing two government officials and a pro-government author, “created disturbances” because they used “insulting language” that “led to adverse social impact.” The other four posts cited as evidence of “inciting ethnic hatred” criticized the central government’s policies in Xinjiang and Tibet that repress minorities’ religious and ethnic identities and called for reform. The indictment says Pu’s messages had “provoked ethnic relations…and damaged ethnic unity.” There is no publicly available evidence of an “adverse social impact” or any other consequences of Pu’s postings.

His lawyer had earlier said that Pu faces up to eight years in prison.

On May 3, 2014, Pu attended a small private seminar in Beijing on the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre with more than a dozen other activists. The following night, Beijing police took Pu from his home and detained him on the charge of “creating a disturbance.” He has now been in detention for 19 months.

Pu, who has diabetes, has had access to insulin and other diabetes medication and has been taken at least once to a Beijing hospital while being held in Beijing Number 1 Detention Center. 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.

Pu 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 one of China’s most well-known lawyers and was featured regularly in the mainstream Chinese press. In 2013, he was chosen by the state-run magazine China Newsweek as the most influential person promoting the rule of law in China.

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. He has pushed for an end to shuanggui, a form of arbitrary detention used by the Chinese Communist Party to investigate disciplinary violations. Pu is also known for his defense of high-profile activists, including the artist Ai Weiwei. Although Pu has frequently been questioned by police for his rights-related work, this is the first time he has been prosecuted.

Since President Xi Jinping came into power in March 2013, his government has further limited already meager civil and political freedoms. It has carried out a wide-ranging assault on civil society and detained hundreds of activists, targeting lawyers in particular. In July 2015, nearly 300 human rights lawyers and activists were detained in connection with the case of the Fengrui Law Firm. At least 40 lawyers remain in detention, many of them held incommunicado and in secret detention and are at risk of torture.

Despite promises to usher in an era of “the rule of law” during the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in late 2014, President Xi’s government has demonstrated that the law remains a tool of the party, and not for ordinary people to defend themselves against arbitrary state power. In addition to using the legal system to punish outspoken individuals and whistleblowers, the government has drafted and passed new laws in the name of state security to further empower the security apparatus to suppress critics perceived to challenge one-party rule.

“Pu is the canary in the coalmine – his sentence will indicate the extent to which the government will further deprive civil society of the air it needs to flourish,” Richardson said. “Genuine respect for the rule of law requires Pu’s immediate release.”

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