Pro-democracy demonstrators hold up portraits of Chinese disbarred lawyer Jiang Tianyong, demanding his release, during a demonstration outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong, China December 23, 2016. 
 
© 2016 Reuters/Tyrone Siu

(New York) – The Chinese government should drop politically motivated charges against the lawyers and activists still being held in custody two years after a nationwide crackdown that began on July 9, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should also invite the United Nations special rapporteur on torture to investigate the detainees’ allegations that they were tortured in custody.

“The Chinese government’s claims of respecting human rights become ever more absurd each day it holds these lawyers and activists in custody,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Jailing the very people who fight for the rule of law undermines progress toward the stable society the Communist Party claims to want.”

In July 2015, Chinese police rounded up and interrogated about 300 rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists across the country. This repression of rule of law advocates is known as the “709” crackdown for the July 9 date of the 2015 roundup. While most have been released, at least three are held while pending trial and another two are serving prison sentences.

Police in Beijing detained rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang in August 2015 and he has not been heard from since. He has been charged with “subversion of state power.” There are reports that Wang was tortured with electric shocks in detention. Police have also been continually harassing Wang’s wife, Li Wenzu, for advocating for her husband’s release, and repeatedly forced her out of rental homes. Wang and Li’s son was also denied enrollment in local kindergartens in Beijing.

On May 19, 2015, police detained activist Wu Gan when he was protesting outside of a court in Jiangxi province over a rape and murder case in which the defense was denied access to court documents. Two months later, the prosecutors’ office in Fujian province, where Wu is from, charged him with “subversion of state power” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” In August 2015, Wu was forced to participate in a TV interview with the state broadcaster CCTV in which he was ordered to confess his guilt, but Wu refused to follow the script, according to a complaint filed by his lawyer. Wu also said the police did not allow him to sleep for several days and nights. Wu’s father, Xu Xiaoshun, had been held by the Fujian authorities for 19 months from 2015 to 2017 on charges of embezzlement in a case believed to be retaliation for his son’s activism.

Beijing-based human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong went missing in November 2016 en route home from Changsha, Hunan province. He was later charged with subversion. In March 2017, Jiang appeared on state TV to “confess” that he fabricated the accounts of torture of another lawyer, Xie Yang, to “smear the Chinese government.” In June the Beijing police claimed that Jiang had dismissed the lawyers his family appointed for him, an action his family believed was forced by the authorities.

In August 2016, a court in Tianjin sentenced human rights lawyer Zhou Shifeng and democracy activist Hu Shigen to seven years and seven-and-a-half years in prison respectively after convicting them of subversion. Both men appeared on TV confessing to their “crimes.” In March 2017, Chief Justice of China’s Supreme Court Zhou Qiang, citing the case of Zhou Shifeng, stated that the convictions of human rights lawyers were one of the country’s biggest legal achievements in the past year.

The lawyers and activists who have been formally released continue to be closely monitored and isolated from friends and colleagues. Hunan province-based lawyer Xie Yang was released on bail in May 2017, but was soon after taken away along with his parents to live in a remote village in Hunan province. Lawyer Li Heping, released after being given a three-year suspended sentence in April 2017, was ordered to wear an electronic monitoring device. Li and his family have also been followed by security officers wherever they go. Lawyer Wang Yu and her family have been under effective house arrest in Inner Mongolia since Wang was released on bail in August 2016. Police installed several surveillance cameras outside of the home of Beijing-based lawyer Xie Yanyi, who was released on bail in January 2017 after 18 months in detention.

In the past months, more details of torture have been exposed as released lawyers and activists reveal the treatment they endured while in custody. Some of the detainees, including lawyers Li Heping and Li Chunfu, legal assistant Li Shuyun and activists Gou Hongguo, have alleged that police forced them to take unknown medication that made their muscles hurt and blurred their vision. While in detention, Li Heping and Wu Gan were put in handcuffs and shackles, linked by an iron chain, that made them unable to stand up or lie straight, even while sleeping. Gou Hongguo, Wu Gan, Li Heping, and legal assistant Zhao Wei alleged that they were kept in solitary confinement and were not allowed to leave their cells for several months. Xie Yang, in interviews transcribed by his lawyers in January 2017, said that he was interrogated day and night by security agents who punched and kicked him, blew smoke in his face, and forced him to sit in a fixed position for more than 20 hours at a time. After 18 months of secret detention and torture, lawyer Li Chunfu showed signs of severe mental trauma upon his release in January 2017.

Human Rights Watch has long documented the Chinese government’s use of torture, which violates its obligations under the Convention against Torture and other international treaties. Beatings, prolonged sleep deprivation, indefinite isolation, threats to one’s family are common techniques used by the Chinese authorities that can cause long-term physical and psychological harm.

Chinese authorities also continue to harass and intimidate lawyers who represent the 709 lawyers and activists, frequently ordering them not to speak to the media and threatening to revoke their lawyers’ licenses. Judicial authorities have not allowed at least four lawyers – Xie Yang’s lawyer Lin Qilei, Jiang Tianyong’s lawyer Tan Chenshou, Wang Quanzhang’s lawyer Yu Wensheng, and Xie Yanyi’s lawyer Liang Xiaojun – to pass China’s annual lawyers’ evaluation, effectively disbarring them.

“As long as the Chinese government treats legal defense work as anti-state activity, confidence in the country’s legal system will remain low,” said Richardson. “Chinese authorities could make their biggest legal achievement this year, an end to this outrageous crackdown – and a step toward a more just China.”