Leading Chinese human rights lawyer faces state subversion charges

Yu Wensheng called for democratic reforms and criticised crackdown on activists

Yu Wensheng: taken away by police, including a specialist Swat team, near his home while on his way to drop his son off at school. Photograph: Adam Dean/The New York Times

Yu Wensheng: taken away by police, including a specialist Swat team, near his home while on his way to drop his son off at school. Photograph: Adam Dean/The New York Times

 

The prominent Beijing human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng is being investigated on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” after calling for democratic reforms in China and criticising a crackdown on his fellow activists.

Mr Yu was taken away by police, including a specialist Swat team, near his home while on his way to drop his 13-year-old son off at school on January 19th. The 50-year-old was subsequently accused of “obstructing a public service”, a much less serious charge than inciting subversion, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

His family said they had received notification from the public security bureau in Tongshan district, in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province in eastern China, that Mr Yu was being held under “residential surveillance in a designated location” but no further information was given.

This generally means a suspect is held for up to six months in an unofficial detention centre, without any access to lawyers or family members.

It’s unclear why the investigation is being carried out so far away from Beijing – the capital is 760km away from Xuzhou – but sometimes politically sensitive cases are dealt with in a jurisdiction far away from the capital where it is more difficult for activists to pressure the authorities.

Earlier this month, Mr Yu had his licence to practise law revoked, ostensibly because he had not worked for a registered law practice for more than six months.

Outspoken critic

He has been outspoken in his criticism of the government’s long-running campaign to muzzle civil society and legal activists in China, especially the 709 crackdown in 2015, when hundreds of lawyers and activists were arrested.

Among the cases he defended was Wang Quanzhang, who has been missing since the crackdown, and the rights lawyer Wang Yu, who has been in detention since the summer of 2016.

He has called for constitutional reform and free presidential elections in China, which is run by the Communist Party and where multi-party democracy is not tolerated.

Amnesty International said the investigation was most likely related to either his calls for reform of the constitution or his efforts to seek redress for his alleged torture after he was held for 99 days in 2014 for supporting the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

“In either case, it appears that his detention is related to his peaceful expression of ideas, particularly about democracy, and this is what has made him an apparent threat to the Communist authorities,” William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, told The Irish Times.

Mr Nee said he was concerned that Mr Yu was at risk of torture, especially as ill-treatment in secret detention facilities was very common.