Twenty years later, China must hold inquiry into Tiananmen Square crackdown

Hundreds of civilians were killed and injured 20 years ago during the violent military crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 3 and 4 June 1989.

A number of people are still in prison for their involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy protests. 

The Chinese government has not released official figures but several non-governmental organizations estimate between 20 and 200 individuals remain in detention. Amnesty International urged the Chinese authorities on Tuesday to hold an open and independent inquiry into events of 1989.

“The National People’s Congress has within its powers the ability to lead the way in calling for an account of all those who died, those who were imprisoned and those who remain in prison still as a result of the crackdown,” wrote Amnesty International in an open letter sent to Wu Bangguo, the Chairman of the National People’s Congress of China, on 13 May 2009.

“A number of people who remain in prison were convicted of ‘counter revolutionary’ crimes that were removed from the Chinese Criminal Code in 1997,” said Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Director. “The Chinese authorities should immediately release these prisoners as a first step towards accountability.”

The Chinese authorities’ ongoing suppression of public discussion of the events means that many have been sentenced to imprisonment after 1989 simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression. For example, those hosting online discussions or posting poems about the crackdown online have been targeted.

That suppression has intensified in the lead up to the 20th anniversary of the protests, as the Chinese authorities have detained and threatened human rights activists and lawyers across the country.

Amnesty International has documented at least 100 cases of activists who have been detained briefly or faced violence from authorities this year as they defended land rights, housing rights and labour rights. Signatories of the Charter 08, a petition calling for legal and political reforms, continue to face questioning. Several of these cases are related to the surveillance of activists ahead of the anniversary.

In the first four months of 2009, the organization also discovered at least four cases of lawyers who were threatened with violence by the authorities as they defended their clients, at least 10 cases where lawyers were hindered from meeting or representing clients and at least one case in which a lawyer was detained for doing his work. Lawyers recently have been threatened with denial of their licenses in retaliation for their work on rights defence cases.

At the launch of the Amnesty International Report 2009 on 28 May, the organization’s Secretary General Irene Khan called on China to sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Although the Chinese government’s recent initiative in launching the National Human Rights Action Plan, which reiterates guarantees against illegal detention and to protect human rights guaranteed in the Chinese Constitution, was welcomed by Amnesty International, the Plan’s success hinges on the actual implementation.

“In the midst of a global economic downturn, the Chinese government has demonstrated its readiness to take up leadership in stabilizing the world economic system,” said Roseann Rife. “When it comes to the protection of human rights, however, the Chinese government has consistently failed to live up to the world’s expectations.”