Injustice in China
Li Wenzu has spent three years fighting to free her husband – a human rights lawyer. But her hopes for justice are slim
It was a little after 5am on 26 December when Li Wenzu tried to leave her apartment to attend her husband’s trial. She hadn’t slept much for the previous two nights after learning that human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang would finally face trial after more than three years of waiting in prison. She hadn’t been able to see or speak to him during that time.
Hours before the trial was to begin, Li walked down the seven flights of stairs of her apartment block in Beijing to find more than a dozen plainclothes police and four cars awaiting her outside. She had already been warned by public security agents not to attend her husband’s trial at a courthouse in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin.
After three years of protesting and calling for the release of her husband, on trial for subverting the state, a charge often used for dissidents, Li is used to the police restricting her movements. “Every time it feels different. Today is Wang Quanzhang’s court hearing, which means there could be a verdict. So I am very worried about that as well as his health,” she said last Wednesday.
Li was quickly surrounded by a crowd of journalists and security agents, holding up their phones to film her. As she tried to move, security agents blocked her way. It was clear they were not going to let her leave, and she was forced to return to her apartment.
“My husband is innocent. He was illegally arrested and detained for three-and-a-half years. Throughout this time, the authorities have continued to break the law, forbidding lawyers from seeing him, and cutting him off from all communication. They have deprived him of his rights … I demand Wang Quanzhang be freed because he is innocent,” she said.
Last Wednesday, Wang – who was detained in August 2015 after years of defending political activists, victims of land seizures and members of the banned religious group Falun Gong – faced a closed trial in Tianjin. Police cordoned off the road outside the courthouse. Dozens of plainclothed security guards policed the area.
Before the trial was scheduled to begin, a man held up a sign outside the court that said: “Free innocent Wang Quanzhang.” He was taken away, according to photos posted on social media.
Representatives from the US, Swiss, UK and German embassies were outside the courthouse and were also refused access. The trial, which was scheduled to begin at 8:30am local time, appeared to be over by early afternoon when security cleared.
Wang’s case marks the close of one of the most serious campaigns against activists under president Xi Jinping. He is one of an estimated 250 lawyers and activists detained in the summer of 2015, now known as the 709 crackdown after the first day of the detentions. He was the last of a group still awaiting trial.
According to a copy of his indictment seen by the Guardian, authorities said Wang “seriously harmed the country’s security and social stability” by accepting funds from foreign organisations, training “barefoot” (self-taught) lawyers, representing “cults”, and providing investigative reports overseas. He was also accused of “maliciously inciting” opposition to the government by publishing information online about the detention of four lawyers representing the Falun Gong in 2014.
Wang’s case is also unique for the amount of time he has been held incommunicado. He disappeared in 2015, but it was not until last July that his family knew for sure he was alive when a lawyer and friend of the family was able to see him. Wang’s isolation has also prompted concerns that he has been tortured or subjected to other forms of ill treatment.
A UN rights working group on arbitrary detentions in August called on China to release Wang. The UN noted that authorities had violated Wang’s right to legal counsel of his own choosing by pressuring lawyers to drop his case or detaining them.
Expectations for Wang’s verdict – to be delivered at an undetermined date – were not optimistic. Of the nine lawyers or activists from the 2015 crackdown who have been tried, all have been convicted. Four have been released on suspended sentences, on strict parole, while the others are serving prison sentences. Wang’s charge carries a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
Last year, Li attempted to walk more than 100km from Beijing to Tianjin to find her husband before she was stopped by police. In December, she shaved her head along with the wives of other lawyers seized in the crackdown in protest of Wang’s treatment – using a play on the word wufa, “without hair”, which sounds similar to “without law”. “I can have no hair, but this country cannot be without law,” she said. LILY KUO IS THE GUARDIAN’S BEIJING CORRESPONDENT
Of the nine lawyers or activists from the 2015 crackdown, all have been convicted
Li Wenzu holds a box with a family picture and her husband’s detention notice