China: Lawyer Yu Wensheng must be granted true freedom after unjust imprisonment

The Chinese human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng must not be subjected to intimidation or surveillance after enduring years of injustice and mistreatment in prison, Amnesty International said ahead of his scheduled release this week.

Yu’s four-year sentence for “subverting state power” is due to end on Tuesday 1 March, but the Chinese government has a record of targeting human rights defenders even after their release from prison.

“Yu Wensheng should never have been jailed in the first place, but now that his unjust prison sentence has ended, he must be granted true freedom,” said Gwen Lee, Amnesty International’s China Campaigner.

“That means he must be allowed to return home to his family in Beijing on 1 March, without facing the kind of intimidation, surveillance and restrictions on movement that the Chinese government has inflicted on other human rights defenders on release from prison.”

Yu Wensheng is a prominent human rights lawyer who has been detained since January 2018 – apparently being targeted after he criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping. He was sentenced in June 2020 following a secret trial and says he was tortured while in prison. He was also sentenced to a three-year “deprivation of political rights”, which are due to begin after he is released from jail.

The court judgement said Yu Wensheng had distorted and fabricated facts and intervened in sensitive domestic issues by accepting interviews with foreign media. The sensitive issues included cases related to Falun Gong religious practitioners, the authorities’ crackdown on lawyers in 2015 and an “Open Letter on Proposed Amendments to the Constitution” that Yu wrote in 2018, just before he was detained. 

When Yu was granted a first meeting with his lawyer in August 2020, after more than two and a half years in detention, he said he had been pepper sprayed during detention and was sometimes required to sit on a metal chair for extended periods until he partially lost consciousness.

He also said he was often not given enough food, and that he suffered heatstroke in the summer due to his poor detention conditions.

Yu Wensheng’s wife Xu Yan has fought tirelessly for the release of her husband and made numerous failed attempts to visit him in prison.

Her first successful visit was three years after Yu’s arrest. She discovered he had been secretly transferred to Nanjing prison and immediately travelled across the country to see him on 5 February 2021.   

She has been under constant surveillance and repeatedly faced harassment by the Chinese authorities – having been summoned, detained and occasionally banned from leaving her house.  The Chinese government continues to crack down on human rights lawyers through administrative measures, intimidation and even prosecution.

In the past, Chinese authorities have released human rights defenders from prison only to continue targeting them. For example, human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong was released from prison in 2019 after serving a sentence for “incitement to subvert state power”, but he is effectively still under house arrest in his parents’ home and unable to travel abroad to see his wife and children, who live overseas.

“Yu Wensheng is a victim of China’s relentless crackdown on freedom of expression who has suffered greatly in prison despite never committing any crime,” Gwen Lee said.

“Any further restrictions on him now would only compound the injustice of his politically motivated jailing. Now that his jail sentence has ended, the Chinese government must let him live his life and resume his work as a human rights lawyer.”

Yu Wensheng is the winner of the 2021 Martin Ennals Award, an annual prize for human rights defenders selected by a jury of 10 of the world’s leading human rights NGOs.