Family Members and Supporters of Li Wangyang Detained and Harassed

December 21, 2012

Family members and supporters of labor activist and 1989 Tiananmen protester Li Wangyang continue to face arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement and communication following Li's death in June 2012. While reports indicate that authorities released some supporters in November 2012, others remain unaccounted for and at least two activists have been criminally prosecuted for their involvement in Li's case. Chinese authorities' actions contravene protections guaranteed in Chinese and international law. Continued restrictions on Li's supporters and family members also illustrate official apprehension over both his case and the calls both within and outside of China for a transparent inquiry into his death.

Following the death of labor advocate and 1989 Tiananmen protester Li Wangyang in June 2012, Chinese authorities have employed a range of coercive measures to intimidate and silence family members and supporters of Li who have questioned the circumstances of his death and called for an investigation into his case. Beginning in June 2012, the Commission observed various reports of security officials placing restrictions on family members and supporters of Li that some have characterized as a "crackdown" and "punishment" for raising suspicions about the circumstances of his death (Guardian, 17 August 12; South China Morning Post (SCMP), 20 June 12). Security officials used "soft detention" (ruanjin)—which includes home confinement, surveillance, restricted movement, and limited contact with others—in a majority of cases to control supporters and family members of Li (Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), 18 July 12, 6 July 12). In some instances, authorities pressured family members and supporters of Li under detention to sign pledges not to pursue investigations into his death, while other reports indicate authorities threatened individuals with imprisonment and reeducation through labor if they discussed the details of Li's case publicly (Radio Free Asia (RFA), 24 September 12; Mingpao via Yahoo!, 13 September 12). Security officials also reportedly removed supporters of Li to unknown locations under the pretense of "being sent on vacation" (bei luyou) and failed to provide information to family members on the status and location of their detained relatives in many cases (CHRD, 16 July 12, 18 July 12).

In two cases reported on in June and July 2012, authorities criminally prosecuted two rights activists for reasons, several observers contend, that had to do with their criticism of officials over the handling of Li's death. Authorities detained Zhu Chengzhi, a longtime friend and advocate of Li's, on June 9, 2012, and later charged him with "inciting subversion" (Criminal Law, Art. 105(2)), and detained rights activist Xiao Yong on June 6 and later sentenced him to 18 months reeducation through labor in July. Family members and other individuals with knowledge of each case indicated that authorities' prosecution of Zhu and Xiao stemmed from their public opposition to the government's investigation and official account of Li's death. According to an August 17, 2012, Guardian article, Zhu's detention allegedly stemmed from him taking images of Li's body and sharing them online.

According to a November 26, 2012, RFA report, authorities in Shaoyang city, Hunan province released around 20 supporters of Li from house arrest following the conclusion of the 18th Party Congress in early November 2012. A number of those released had been held in detention at their homes or other unspecified locations since June 2012. The same article indicated, however, those activists released still faced restrictions on communication, while other supporters of Li—including his sister and brother-in-law—remain incommunicado and unaccounted for.

Continued Detention of Relatives and Supporters Raises Human Rights Concerns

Chinese authorities' actions against Li's supporters and family members contravene protections guaranteed under China's Constitution and prohibitions against arbitrary detention under international law. According to Article 37 of the PRC Constitution, the "deprivation or restriction of citizen's freedom of the person" is prohibited. Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile." According to Article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), no one should be subjected to arbitrary and extralegal arrests or detentions. China signed the ICCPR in 1998 and has on multiple occasions expressed its intent to ratify the instrument. Under the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (list of participating States Parties), a State Party has committed a crime of enforced disappearance when its agents arrest, detain, abduct, or otherwise deprive a person of liberty and then deny holding the person or conceal the fate or whereabouts of the person.

Background on Li Wangyang Case

On June 6, 2012, veteran pro-democracy activist Li Wangyang was found hanging in his hospital room in Shaoyang city, Hunan province where he had been receiving medical treatment following his release from prison in May 2011. Li had previously served 11 years in prison for forming an independent labor union and participating in the 1989 Tiananmen protests, and 10 years for going on a hunger strike to demand compensation for maltreatment suffered in prison(Human Rights in China (HRIC), 6 June 12).

Reports issued by international non-governmental organizations and news outlets highlighted procedural problems associated with officials' initial investigation of Li's death. According to one report, authorities restricted Li's family access to his body in the immediate aftermath of his death and prevented them from taking photographs inside his hospital room (HRIC, 6 June 12). Officials authorized an autopsy, which was conducted on June 8 in the absence of Li's family, and cremated his body on June 9, despite pledges from public security officials to delay cremation to allow for a family-appointed lawyer to participate in the autopsy (RFA, 8 June 12, 12 September 12; Voice of America, 13 June 12; SCMP, 10 June 12).

The suspicious circumstances surrounding Li's death received widespread media attention and prompted friends and family to question official claims that Li had committed suicide, in part due to his positive demeanor before his death, the many disabilities that hindered his mobility, and the fact that he was under police surveillance while at the hospital (Los Angeles Times, 6 June 12; HRIC, 6 June 12).

Citing attention from Hong Kong-based and international observers, public security officials in Hunan province announced on June 14 that a team of forensic experts and criminal investigators would reexamine Li's death (SCMP, 15 June 12; Ta Kung Pao, 15 June 12). On July 12, 2012, authorities published the results of their month-long investigation, determining that Li's death resulted from suicide (New York Times, 13 July 12; CHRD, 12 July 12). Suspicion over Li's death endures despite the government-led investigation. An August 2012, report compiled by an Australian forensic expert highlighted a number of irregularities in the authorities' investigation of Li's death, concluding that it failed to meet international standards for investigating a death in custody (SCMP, 24 August 12). Supporters of Li from China and abroad continue to call for an independent and comprehensive investigation into his death (RFA, 29 November 12).