This month marks the second anniversary of the Chinese government’s crackdown on lawyers and human rights defenders.
In July 2015, authorities began a nationwide campaign of intimidation against defense lawyers and rights defenders. Over 300 people have been interrogated, detained, arrested, placed under residential surveillance or forbidden to leave the country.
In its most recent human rights report on China, the State Department noted that a number of the lawyers who had been detained were released only after coerced and televised confessions. The report also said that “[p]ublic security officials continued to harass, intimidate, and take punitive measures against the family members of rights defenders and lawyers in retaliation for their work.”
At a press briefing in which she marked the anniversary of the crackdown, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said the United States “remains deeply concerned about the continued detention of at least seven defense lawyers and rights defenders and reports of their alleged torture and denial of access to independent legal counsel:”
“We urge the Chinese authorities to immediately release those still in detention and drop the charges, and also allow them to reunite with their families. We urge the Chinese authorities to view lawyers and rights defenders as partners in strengthening Chinese society through the development of the rule of law.”
The urgency of Spokesperson Nauert’s message was highlighted by the recent death in custody of Chinese human rights champion and Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Liu Xiaobo. Dr. Liu, who had been influential in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and in promoting the famous Charter 08 manifesto calling for democratic reform and adherence to the rule of law in China, died under guard in a hospital in the city of Shenyang. Reportedly his death was due to organ failure from advanced liver cancer; Chinese authorities had refused to allow him to travel outside the country for medical treatment.
In a statement, U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad wrote, “As we mourn the loss and celebrate the life of this remarkable man, we call on China to release all prisoners of conscience and to respect the fundamental freedoms of all.”