The politically motivated case against prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Li Heping has reached a new low. On April 28, a court in Tianjin found Li guilty of “subversion of state power” and handed him a three-year suspended sentence. But the real kicker is that despite the suspended sentence, the authorities haven’t released Li, nor said where he is and when they plan to do so.
Li allegedly “used foreign funding” to “attempt to instigate discontent towards [China’s] social system among some people who do not know the facts.” It is not clear what funds the court was referring to, but shrewd netizens quickly noted the court’s hypocrisy – a 2015 Supreme Court report in which the court boasted of having received funding from the British government for rule of law research. “How come you people are not subverting state power?” human rights lawyer Zhang Lei asked.
While strangers were allowed to attend Li’s verdict announcement, his family was not even informed of it, or his secret trial on April 25. Li’s lawyer – assigned by the police after they forced Li to fire the lawyers his family chose for him – was also not in the courtroom. Instead, that lawyer traveled with the police to Beijing to help them pressure Li’s wife, Wang Qiaoling, to go to Tianjin to meet with Li, whom she has not seen since he was detained in July 2015.
But Wang, who has fearlessly advocated for her husband’s release, rejected the request, fearing that she would find herself under house arrest. Some family members of the previously “released” lawyers have met just that fate after being led by the police to “reunite” with their loved ones, Wang said in a statement.
With each of these cases against human rights lawyers, who were among the mass round-up of some 300 lawyers and activists in July 2015, Chinese authorities do extraordinary damage to claims to respect the rule of law.
Mitigating that means freeing Li immediately so he can return to his work, and ending all harassment and surveillance of him and his family.