Two years after China's unprecedented crackdown on human rights lawyers, criticism abounds that authorities appear resolute and relentless in their efforts to suppress civil society. But activists say they won't give up.
Volkskongress China 2013 (picture-alliance/dpa)
Chen Guiqiu hasn't seen her husband, Xie Yang, for two years now. The only time she saw him was when he appeared on a video footage released by a Chinese court in May this year, in which he admitted to charges of "subversion of state power."
45-year-old Xie is one of hundreds of human rights lawyers and activists arrested in China's unprecedented crackdown on dissent in 2015.
At least six of the arrested still remain in detention or in prison, while 27 had been detained for more than six months or longer, according to Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Defenders (CHRD), a Hong Kong-based advocacy group.
Moreover, many of those who were released on bail are under heavy surveillance and restricted freedom of movement.
Xie, though released on bail after the trial in May, has been put under "residential surveillance at a police designated location" - in other words, his whereabouts are still unknown.
Two years on, the only contacts Chen has had with Xie were several phone calls, which Chen believes were conducted under police watch.
No strong defense
"God knows how many times I have been to detention centers, prosecutors and the public security bureau. All my requests to see my husband were denied. They simply ignored me," Chen, who has fled to the US and now lives there with their two daughters, told DW.
In fact, many detained lawyers were not only denied access to families, but also not allowed to hire defense lawyers upon their own will. Instead, government-appointed lawyers are forced upon them.
"In the event of a trial, it is virtually guaranteed that detainees who have state-assigned lawyers forced on them will not receive a strong defense of their rights, if any at all," said CHRD in a statement.
Besides the violation of detainees' rights by the authorities, alleged acts of torture have also been revealed by detainees' families and lawyers.
In January, Xie's attorney Chen Jiangang, who was appointed by Xie's wife but denied by court, released transcripts of his interview with the defendant. The transcripts detailed accounts of physical abuse Xie received in detention.
"I used to be very obedient. When they asked me not to say anything I wouldn't. When they told me not to talk to foreign media, I agreed. But after I heard about the physical abuse Xie suffered in custody, I knew I had to fight for my rights," Chen said.
But during the trial in May, Xie withdrew his previous claims of being tortured, which many believe was a coerced confession. It also raised concerns about the health conditions of many lawyers still in custody.
Xie was not the first one to have made what many rights groups allege as forced confessions. Other arrested prominent lawyers and activists, such as Zhou Shifeng and Wang Yu, had also appeared on state TV admitting their "unlawful activities" and discrediting government critics in what many believed were coerced confessions.
"These cases lay bare Chinese authorities' shameless manipulation of the legal system to silence rule of law advocates and critics," Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released in 2016.
While both the EU and the UN have expressed their concerns on China's human rights situation and "denounced" its ongoing crackdown against rights lawyers, Beijing has so far only denied the allegations and criticisms.
"The Chinese authorities have never stopped suppressing human rights activists, not only lawyers but also civil society activists," prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Teng Biao, who fled to the US in 2014, told DW.
"The 709 crackdown is a show of force from the authorities to suppress China's human rights lawyers. They want to destroy any opposition voice in civil society," Teng added.
Although the 2015 crackdown and the subsequent trials and convictions have drawn criticism from international rights groups, Teng argues that more pressure is needed to force China to respect the rule of law.
"Without international attention, these lawyers might be sentenced for even longer. Conditions in jail and physical abuse would be even worse," said Teng, who also called for the establishment of "China Human Rights Lawyers' Day" on July 9, in order to remember the continuous oppression human rights lawyers face in the country.
"Human rights lawyers have contributed a lot to promoting the rule of law and democracy in China, but they have also paid a huge price for what they did," Teng added.
Still, rights activists remain defiant, although their path ahead will certainly not be easy. "The increasing organizational power of opposition voices in society, led by human rights lawyers, is one of Chinese Communist Party's greatest fears," said Teng. "There are no signs that the authorities would back down on suppressing them any time soon."
Under constant watch
As one of the means to eliminate human rights lawyers, Chinese authorities often delay the license renewal for lawyers as a punishment for those taking up sensitive cases.
"I haven't been allowed to renew my license since 2015. Without it I cannot practice my profession. I basically haven't taken up any new cases since 2015," Liu Xiaoyuan, a partner at Beijing-based Fengrui law firm, which was the main target in the 2015 crackdown, told DW.
"The subjugation of human rights lawyers has only intensified over the past few years," Liu noted. Liu's problems with his license renewal began after he represented renowned dissident artist Ai Weiwei in 2011.
Liu said many activists were not only watched over on their every movement, but also closely monitored on what they say on the internet.
"Surveillance doesn't only take place physically. The authorities also summoned me for what I posted on social media," Liu added
Despite facing increasing pressure, Liu said human rights lawyers are persisting.
"Many lawyers are still very determined to make use of their profession to safeguard the basic rights of citizens. They believe this is the job they have to keep doing," said Liu.
As for Xie's wife, Chen, the only thing she can do now is to continue seeking Xie's release, though it is not sure if the day will eventually come. "Whether we can get him free depends on how much we fight for it. I will not stop until he regains freedom," said Chen.
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