Is this how China wants us to see its criminal justice system?

29th January, 2019

Perhaps the only upside of the announcement from a court in Tianjin yesterday, that human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang has been sentenced to four and a half years in prison, is that his wife and fearless campaigner, Li Wenzu, may now finally be able to see her husband, nearly three and a half years after he was detained.

Wang Quanzhang has been convicted of subversion of state power.  Both his trial and sentencing took place at closed door hearings from which his wife was also barred. Wang has a history of representing politically sensitive cases, including Falun Gong and forced evictions, was detained in August 2015 as part of the crackdown on Chinese rights defending lawyers, widely known as ‘709’.

His first six months in detention were spent in “residential surveillance in a designated location” (RSDL), a measure described by the United Nations as a form of incommunicado detention, and which, we believe, has no purpose other than to secure a confession. 

Wang Quanzhang had no access to a lawyer during his time in RSDL. After he was transferred to a pre-trial detention centre the authorities refused to authorise access by any lawyers appointed by his wife and allowed very restricted access by government-approved lawyers mandated, it seems, to secure his cooperation and willingness to confess.  

There are well-founded worries that Wang was tortured during his time in detention, particularly during the period of RSDL. Reports from previous detainees in RSDL describe forced medication, the use of stress positions, oppressive interrogations and other forms of psychological and physical ill treatment. There have been no recent photographs of Wang leading to intense speculation on his state of health.

The charges against Wang included receiving overseas training and funding and representing other human rights defenders and Falun Gong practitioners. This case is a very sorry indictment of China’s politicised criminal justice system: vague national security offences, incommunicado detention and an information vacuum.

The Chinese government may have hoped that the cases against Wang Quanzhang and other lawyers would serve to silence China’s human rights defenders.  Yet, while activists may be less outspoken, the work of human rights defenders continues. Before Wang Quanzhang was detained Li Wenzu played no role in his work. His wife is now a formidable campaigner.

Banner photo: Li Wenzu courtesy of AFP/Getty Images