Windsor Star

China’s human rights record unacceptab­le

- IRWIN COTLER Irwin Cotler, member of Parliament for Mount Royal and an internatio­nal human rights lawyer who has defended political prisoners all over the world, is part of the legal team representi­ng Gao Zhisheng and Liu Xiaobo.

The celebratio­n of the 40th anniversar­y of diplomatic relations between Canada and the People’s Republic of China reflects the increasing Canada-China connection on ruleof-law issues, as well as the emergence of China as a global economic power that has domestical­ly lifted millions of its citizens from poverty and enhanced the education of its citizens.

But China’s imprisonme­nt of two of its most distinguis­hed human rights activists — Mr. Gao Zhisheng, and Dr. Liu Xiaobo, the latter recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his extraordin­ary contributi­on to the protection of liberty in his country — is a betrayal both of its global leadership aspiration­s and the values that underpin the great Chinese civilizati­on.

Let me make full disclosure: I write as a member of the legal defence team of both these political prisoners, and as someone who has represente­d political prisoners all over the world.

Regrettabl­y, Gao and Liu’s imprisonme­nt reflects the increased assaults on the rule of law and the repression faced by human rights advocates in China.

Accordingl­y, the release of Gao and Liu is crucial in affirming a China that respects the rule of law and the protection of human rights. It will also demonstrat­e to Canada and to the internatio­nal community that the Chinese government is committed to its domestic and internatio­nal legal obligation­s.

Gao is a human rights lawyer whose advocacy on behalf of religious minorities, coal miners and disabled children earned him recognitio­n as “the conscience of China.”

He received a suspended sentence for “incitement to subvert state power” in 2006 and has since been repeatedly tortured by government authoritie­s.

After his “disappeara­nce” in February 2009 — and substantia­l internatio­nal attention — he “reappeared” in March 2010. The government again caused him to disappear in April 2010; his current whereabout­s is unknown.

In particular, Gao has been denied his fundamenta­l rights, including the protection against arbitrary arrest and detention, the denial of a fair trial and the protection against coercive interrogat­ion and torture, while being victimized by trumped-up charges.

Simply put, Gao’s detention is a case in point of the Chinese government’s forc- ing human rights lawyers to abandon their advocacy on behalf of persecuted groups. The government shuts down law firms, disbars lawyers, and pressures judges to dismiss cases. And now, as is the case with Gao, lawyers seem to vanish for the “crime” of defending their clients. This is a line that no rights-respecting rule-of-law country should cross.

As for Liu, the internatio­nally renowned scholar and human rights advocate remains confined in a remote prison in northeast China. His role in coauthorin­g Charter 08 — calling on the Chinese government to honour rights entrenched in the Chinese constituti­on and to institute democratic reforms — led to his current illegal and unjust imprisonme­nt.

After a trial that violated Chinese law as well as internatio­nal law — and indeed the bilateral undertakin­gs of China to Canada to uphold the rule of law as set forth in our agreements — Liu was sentenced to 11 years of imprisonme­nt on charges of “incitement to subvert state power and overthrow the socialist system.”

As Liu himself wrote after his arrest, “I have long been aware that when an independen­t intellectu­al stands up to an autocratic state, step one toward freedom is often a step into prison.

“Now I am taking that step; and true freedom is that much nearer.”

Regrettabl­y, the imprisonme­nt of Gao and Liu reflects the increased assault on China’s own constituti­on as well as the related criminaliz­ation of dissent in China.

But this need not be regarded as simply a moment of shame for China. Rather, it can be looked upon as a moment of tribute to the heroism of its citizens — including Dr. Liu’s moral courage — while making true freedom, as he put it, “that much nearer.”

Releasing Gao and Liu would demonstrat­e that China is ready to take its place in the community of nations, prepared not only to be an economic superpower, but to empower its people to compete in the market place of ideas.

The choice for China is clear: it can continue to repress its citizens and put itself on the wrong side of history — fighting a losing battle against the forces of freedom and democracy that its own premier recently called “irresistib­le” — or it can stand on the side of justice.

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