Xu Zhiyong

China: Unfair trials of prominent activists an attack of freedom of association

Two Chinese human rights activists are set to face grossly unfair trials behind closed doors this week after being targeted and tortured due to their peaceful work, Amnesty International said today.

Legal scholar Xu Zhiyong and human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi will be in court this Wednesday and Thursday respectively, facing spurious charges of “subverting state power”.

“The Chinese authorities have targeted Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi not because they committed any internationally recognized crime, but simply because they hold views the government does not like. These unfair trials are an egregious attack on their human rights,” said Amnesty International’s China Campaigner Gwen Lee.

“Having faced torture and other ill-treatment during their arbitrary detention, Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi now face being sentenced to years behind bars in secretive trials that have been rigged from the start.”

Xu and Ding are both prominent members of the New Citizens’ Movement, a loose network of activists founded by Xu in 2012 to promote government transparency and expose corruption.

They were among dozens of lawyers and activists targeted after attending an informal gathering held in Xiamen, a city on China’s southeast coast, in December 2019, in which they discussed the civil society situation and current affairs in China.

Later that month, police across the country began summoning or detaining participants in the Xiamen gathering.

Tortured in a “tiger chair”

Ding was held incommunicado in “residential surveillance at a designated location” for more than a year after being taken away on 26 December 2019.

Friends of Xu Zhiyong say he went into hiding after the meeting in December 2019. In early February 2020, Xu criticized President Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests and called on him to resign.

On 15 February 2020, Xu was detained while staying at the home of a fellow activist and subsequently also held incommunicado in “residential surveillance at a designated location” until 21 January 2021.

Both men were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment during detention, including long hours of interrogation and being bound to an iron “tiger-chair” with their limbs contorted for more than 10 hours per day for many days.

This treatment violates the absolute prohibition against torture and other ill-treatment under international human rights law.

The authorities investigated Xu and Ding’s cases together until 20 January 2021, after which they were charged with “subversion of state power” and their lawyers were informed that their cases would be handled separately.

“These men’s bravery in defending the human rights of others should be commended, not punished. Xu continued to loudly advocate for disadvantaged groups even after being jailed for it, and spoke out about the government’s handling of Covid-19 when others remained silent,” Gwen Lee said.

“The Chinese government is systematically using national security charges with extremely vague provisions, such as “subverting state power”, to unjustly prosecute lawyers, scholars, journalists, human rights activists and NGO workers among many others.”

Xu’s lawyer was not able to meet him for three months before his pre-trial hearing last week, nor was he allowed to obtain information and documents related to the case – some of which may include ‘evidence’ obtained through torture.

Ding’s lawyer, meanwhile, has had no contact with him for four months. 

“Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi have been targeted solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedoms of opinion and association. They must be immediately released,” Gwen Lee said.

“Until they are, the authorities must ensure Xu and Ding are not subject to further torture or other ill-treatment in prison, and allow them to see their families and lawyers of their choice.”

This would not be the first time Xu and Ding have been jailed for their peaceful activism.

Xu spent four years in prison on trumped-up public order charges from 2013 to 2017.

Ding, whose activism has included advocating for rights of migrant workers’ children and demanding transparent governance, was sentenced to three-and-a-half years’ imprisonment in 2014 for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place”.

Meanwhile, no trial dates have yet been confirmed for Li Qiaochu, a labour rights and feminist activist and Xu Zhiyong’s partner, who was held in secret detention from February to June 2020. Li was again detained by the authorities on 6 February 2021 and was held in the same detention centre as Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi under the charge of “inciting subversion of state power”.

Li was not allowed to meet with her lawyer until August 2021. Li’s indictment, dated 28 February 2022, alleges that Li was instructed by Xu Zhiyong to publish “subversive” articles online in September 2019.