Update: On December 16, 2016, the family of Huang Qi received a formal notice stating that he had been arrested for “providing state secrets abroad,” and that he was being held in Mianyang City Detention Center. On December 23, Jiang Tianyong’s family received a notice issued by Changsha police that Jiang has been subjected to “residential surveillance at a designated location” for “inciting subversion.” The authorities have not disclosed where they are holding him. On December 27, Liu Feiyue’s family received a formal notice issued by the Suizhou procuratorate, dated December 23, that Liu had been arrested for “inciting subversion.” On January 4, a volunteer for the 64tianwang.com website, Hu Jinqiong, was detained by Sichuan police for “creating disturbances.” Police have denied the lawyers of Huang, Jiang, and Liu access to their clients, citing concerns about national security or stating that granting such access would “impede investigations.”  The three detainees should have immediate access to their lawyers and families, Human Rights Watch said. 

(New York) – China’s government should immediately account for three prominent human rights defenders who appear to have been forcibly disappeared, Human Rights Watch said today. Human rights campaigner Liu Feiyue, lawyer Jiang Tianyong, and activist Huang Qi, have all been previously harassed by the authorities and have been missing since November 17, 21, and 28, 2016, respectively.

Police arrest a man in downtown Shanghai after calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" protest on February 27, 2011.

© 2011 Reuters

The secret detention of individuals without access to family members or legal counsel significantly increases the risk of torture in detention.

“The Chinese authorities should formally notify the families of Huang, Jiang, and Liu of their whereabouts and urgently allow them and their lawyers to visit,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Officials involved in these forced disappearances are responsible for any mistreatment they suffer in detention.”

On November 17, Liu Feiyue, 46, founder of the Hubei-based grassroots rights monitoring organization Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, texted his colleague saying that national security police had come to take him away. On November 18, Hubei police told Liu’s family that he had been detained on suspicion of “subversion of state power.” The family still has not received a written notice. On December 6, Zhang Keke, Liu’s lawyer, learned verbally from police that Liu was being held in Suizhou City No.1 Detention Center on suspicion of “inciting subversion.” The officers said they would deliver Liu’s detention notice “later, in accordance with the law,” and they also declined Zhang’s request to meet with his client before they had “studied” his request.

Although China’s Criminal Procedure Law requires police to notify families within 24 hours of criminal detention, such requirement can be waived in cases involving “national security” and “terrorism,” and when the police believe that such notification could “impede the investigation.” Similarly, although the Criminal Procedure Law allows lawyer-client meetings within 48 hours of lawyers making such requests, in cases involving “national security,” “terrorism,” and “major corruption,” police approval is required before such meetings can take place. No publicly available information suggests the accusations have any merit. Charges of inciting subversion can result in 15 years in prison.

On November 21, Beijing-based human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, 45, went missing en route home from Changsha, Hunan Province, after he visited the family of a friend who had been arrested. Jiang’s family tried for several days to report his disappearance to various police units in Changsha, Beijing, and Henan Province, where Jiang’s residency is registered, but officers declined to act. Jiang’s lawyer, Qin Chenshou, said that on December 13 he had been told by a police officer at Changsha train station that Jiang had been subjected to nine days of administrative detention for “purchasing over 20 tickets using others’ identification cards.” The officer said Jiang has been released on December 1, and that they had mailed the notification to Jiang’s family, only to have it returned. But the officer declined to provide the lawyer a copy of the notification. He also said he had no further information, such as whether Jiang remained in detention or his whereabouts.

On December 15, Jiang’s wife, Jin Bianling, who has been living in the United States, said she learned that on December 4 police had broken into an apartment Jiang used in Beijing. On December 16, state press reported that Jiang has been held under an unspecified “coercive criminal measure” for “illegally holding state secrets documents” and “illegally providing state secrets to other countries.” The report also says Jiang’s family “has been notified according to the law.” Yet his family said they have received no such notification. The report also does not explain where Jiang is held.
 

The Chinese authorities appear to have replaced the mass arrests of human rights defenders in 2015 with the equally invidious enforced disappearance of activists one by one.

Sophie Richardson

China Director

On November 28, police officers in Sichuan Province took Huang Qi, 53, founder of the rights monitoring website 64tianwang, from his home and searched the premises. The whereabouts of Huang’s 83-year-old mother are also unclear, but the website’s volunteers suspect police involvement. There has been no formal notification about his detention. Huang suffers from serious kidney disease and requires daily medication.

The three men have for many years been active in promoting human rights in China. Liu’s Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch is a grassroots platform that has been reporting on human rights abuses in China since its founding in 2006, documenting detention, imprisonment, and harassment of activists, petitioners, and protesters, including the abusive use of involuntary psychiatric detention. Jiang, who was disbarred in 2009 for political reasons, has long been active in human rights cases, including providing legal advice to Falun Gong practitioners and Christians. In 2011, he was detained for two months and tortured for his activism. Huang, imprisoned twice for a total of eight years, has since 1999 used his website to report on human rights violations, including detentions of activists, petitioners, and Falun Gong practitioners, and forced demolitions. Awarded the Press Freedom Prize by Reporters Without Borders in November 2016, 64tianwang is possibly the longest-running human rights website based in China.

Although the three cases reflect the broader Chinese government crackdown on human rights defenders since President Xi Jinping formally took power in March 2013, there is no information directly linking them.

Under international law, a government commits an enforced disappearance when state agents take a person into custody and then deny holding the person, or conceal or fail to disclose the person’s whereabouts. Family members and legal representatives are not informed of the person’s location, well-being, or legal status. “Disappeared” people are often at high risk of torture and other ill-treatment.

The Chinese government has long used enforced disappearances against its critics. In 2011, authorities responded to an anonymous online call for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China by disappearing dozens of critics across the country and holding them in secret locations for weeks. In 2012, revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law made it lawful to hold persons for up to six months without disclosing their whereabouts – effectively legalizing enforced disappearance.

In July 2015, the government took into custody 300 human rights lawyers and their associates, as well as activists supporting them; in more than a dozen of these cases, authorities concealed, for months, information about the detainees, including whether they were in custody, their whereabouts, and their well-being. Sixteen remain in detention. Between October and December 2015, five staff members of the Causeway Bay Bookstore, which publishes and sells books in Hong Kong about mainland politics, went missing. Four were released months later after “confessing” on television to smuggling banned books, but one, Swedish national Gui Minhai, remains detained incommunicado in an unknown location.

“The Chinese authorities appear to have replaced the mass arrests of human rights defenders in 2015 with the equally invidious enforced disappearance of activists one by one,” Richardson said. “Not only does it terrorize those held and their family members, but it reinforces a message to the rest of civil society: stay silent – or we’ll silence you.”