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Ji Sizun © Chinese Human Rights Defenders
(New York) – Chinese authorities should investigate the circumstances and causes of human rights activist Ji Sizun’s death, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 10, 2019, two months after being released from prison, Ji Sizun died from unknown illnesses, guarded by state security in a hospital in Fujian province. He was 69-years-old and had reportedly been ill-treated in detention.

“Chinese authorities need to investigate Ji Sizun’s hospitalization and death and hold accountable anyone responsible for wrongdoing,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher. “For human rights defenders in China, prison sentences are increasingly turning into death sentences.”

Ji Sizun was released from prison in late April after serving four and a half years on fabricated charges of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order” and “picking quarrels.” He was then taken straight to the intensive care unit of Xiangcheng District Hospital in his hometown of Zhangzhou, in Fujian province. During his hospitalization, police had allowed only very limited visits by Ji’s family, prevented his friends from visiting, and warned family and friends not to speak publicly about his condition.

Ji’s family said he was in good physical condition when he entered prison in 2014. During his imprisonment, he suffered from high blood pressure, diabetes, and coronary artery disease. Lawyers applied for medical parole on his behalf several times, but all the requests were denied.

A self-described grassroots activist, Ji provided legal advice and training to disadvantaged groups such as victims of China’s one-child policy, forced evictions, and land expropriation. In 2009, a Fujian court sentenced him to three years in prison for “forging official seals and documents” after he applied for a permit to hold a protest at one of the three official “protest zones” during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In 2016, another Fujian court sentenced him to four and a half years in prison after he helped petitioners organize protests and supported the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

In recent years, a number of prominent dissidents in China have become seriously ill in detention, been denied adequate care, and died either in detention or shortly after being released. In November 2017, dissident writer Yang Tongyan died less than three months after being released on medical parole. In July 2017, Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo died three weeks after he was transferred to a hospital under heavy security. In July 2015, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a revered Tibetan lama, died while serving a life sentence after months of increasingly serious allegations that his health was deteriorating. In March 2014, activist Cao Shunli died in a Beijing hospital after she was arbitrarily detained in September 2013.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners set out that all death-in-custody cases should be subjected to “prompt, impartial and effective investigations into the circumstances and causes” of the death. As the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions has noted, since there is a presumption of state responsibility due to the custodial setting and the government’s obligation to ensure and respect the right to life, the government has yet to provide evidence to rebut the presumption of state responsibility. Absent proof that it is not responsible, the government has an obligation to provide redress to the family of the deceased.

“The only lesson Chinese authorities seem to have learned from these activists’ deaths is that they can get away with wrongful treatment of prisoners,” Wang said. “The government’s failure to publicly account for these deaths will only mean more unnecessary loss of life in the future.” 

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