Another tale of cruelty: how the Chinese government crushed rights lawyer WANG Quanzhang

By Jerome A. Cohen

The case of human rights lawyer WANG Quanzhang (my Washington Post op-ed) is one more tale of PRC cruelty toward a leading lawyer and his family but deserves special further scrutiny from several points of view.

When finally allowed to see him after more than 1,400 days into his detention, his wife Li Wenzu discovered the reason why the regime delayed so long and resorted to so many ridiculous ploys to deny her and any defense lawyers access to him. Like some other well-known professional colleagues, Wang has been reduced to a vegetable through a combination of tortures, physical and mental, as this brief account makes clear.  

Yet there are still unsolved mysteries about the case that render it unusual among the many similar examples of the crushing of the right to defense in violation of China’s Constitution and legislation and the PRC’s international human rights commitments. Why, contrary to standard practice even in “sensitive” cases, has no court judgment confirming and supposedly explaining his long-delayed conviction and sentence been issued to his wife and the public? Is it yet known when his anticipated prison release will occur? Has he, like others, been forcibly subjected to unnecessary and unwanted “medical” treatment that weakened his extraordinary resolve to resist his lengthy incommunicado interrogation?

What will be the terms of his release? Will it be another illustration of what I have often called the “non-release release” (NRR) because the victim is in effect illegally transferred from one mode of loss of personal freedom to another involving less financial and reputational cost to the regime? So many valiant human rights lawyers have been neutered in one way or other after ostensible “release” from their years of futile resistance to unspeakable forms of detention.

I hope many journalists will pursue these inquiries.  

Conviction of Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang

By Jerome A. Cohen

Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang has been sentenced to four and a half years in prison for subversion. But, since we have not yet seen the court’s judgment and don’t know the details of his long detention, we cannot be certain what this sentence means.

Wang has been held in pre-trial and post-trial detention since July 2015, and detention time served is usually deducted from the sentence (with one-to-one credit for the days of regular detention and only half a credit for the days during which he was held in “residential surveillance at a designated location” or RSDL). This probably means that Wang can be expected to be released in April 2020 and perhaps even earlier, depending on how long he was confined in RSDL rather than regular criminal detention.  BUT the court may have deviated from the practice of giving credit for time already served prior to sentence, which would mean no release until mid-2023!

In light of the harsh sentences rendered to some other lawyers punished in the 709 crackdown, IF the court has followed the standard sentencing practice, it appears that the Chinese Communist Party/government has gone relatively (and unexpectedly) light on Wang. So many factors go into the sentencing decision. How has he behaved? What shape is he in? Has he made any apparently sincere commitment to abide by the secret promises usually extracted from a convicted person to be a “good boy” upon release? Has the Party decided to look lenient because of the intense world interest, the abusive and unusually lengthy pre-sentence detention Wang suffered and the current widespread international condemnation of China for its abominable misbehavior toward the three Canadians who are being punished in retaliation for Canada’s handling of America’s extradition request of the Huawei executive? 

Pressures on Wang not to appeal must be very great. Some convicted defendants decline to appeal because they know that the appeal process will not result in a favorable outcome and only extends the time they will remain confined in conditions that are often much more uncomfortable than the prison cell that awaits them once the appellate process has run its course. To be sure, we don’t know in what kind of shape Wang is mentally and physically and whether he has been subjected to any of the horrific “medical” treatment designed to break the will of so many political defendants. He may not be in condition to carefully weigh the wisdom of an appeal. If he is still capable of rational decision and retains his courageous determination, he may wish to appeal simply to avoid the inference that he accepts the decision as a correct and just one.

In any event it should be noted that only giving half sentencing credit for time served in RSDL is grossly unfair, since conditions tend to be more coercive than if the suspect is detained in an ordinary jail, even though an ordinary detention cell can be extremely uncomfortable. RSDL is not “house arrest” in one’s own home but in that of the secret police. I think double credit should be given for every day of RSDL until that vile detention practice is abolished, as it should be!!

The Code of Criminal Procedure limits RSDL to a three-month term that can be renewed once. Yet I have long suspected that police have meted out more than the maximum six-months RSDL term on some occasions by purporting to charge the hapless suspect with another “national security” offense that supposedly deserves their investigation. This may have occurred in the Wang case and perhaps the delay in issuing the judgment is related to an attempt to obscure that situation.

Wang Quanzhang, wife and son (Wang Quanxiu via AP)

Human Rights Lawyer Wang Quanzhang's Secret Trial

By Jerome A. Cohen

Wang Quanzhang, who has been detained incommunicado since July 2015, was reportedly tried today in a secret trial that neither his wife nor supporters could attend.

Wang Quanzhang and his wife Li Wenzu, with their child. Credit: Li Wenzu, via Associated Press

Wang Quanzhang and his wife Li Wenzu, with their child. Credit: Li Wenzu, via Associated Press

I didn’t have the good fortune to know Wang Quanzhang but I know what he stands for and what the public martyrdom that is his trial symbolizes. Wang, of course, represents the best, yet vain, efforts of many valiant Chinese human rights lawyers to establish the rule of law in an increasingly repressive Communist system. Like so many of his colleagues, Wang has been crushed after losing his freedom for more than 1,200 days. The wonder is that it has taken his captors such an impressively long time to prepare the secret trial.

In a year when “justice” has been chosen to be the world’s most prominent word, what we are allowed to know of Wang’s so-called trial is a brief but potent demonstration of “injustice”. Yet Chairman Mao once said that we should never underestimate the educational value of negative examples!

U.S. should impose Magnitsky Act sanctions against China’s human rights violators

Jerome A. Cohen

Amnesty has just issued a plea for urgent action on behalf of what remains of lawyer Jiang Tianyong. Amnesty’s announcement seems understated despite the large cap title. Jiang is exposed to more than the “imminent risk of torture and other ill-treatments”. He has in actuality long been suffering from such abuse that is designed to break him as a person, to destroy him both mentally and physically. And, as we know from many cases including those of Gao Zhisheng and Wang Quanzhangthis calculated campaign to end China’s human rights lawyering seems to be gradually thinning the ranks of human rights lawyers. The many, sometimes bizarre, procedural violations in Jiang’s case are a reminder of the realities of Chinese justice when it comes to those who challenge the regime. His captors should be investigated on charges of what may well amount to “attempted murder”.

I know Jiang but have never cooperated with Wang Quanzhang, whose case appears to be even more outrageous. After three years of absolute silence about Wang’s fate the Party has reportedly decided to finally bring him to “trial” in the near future but his mental and physical condition are both in doubt, and he has not been allowed to retain his own lawyer but must accept a government-selected one.

Despite Chinese Government maneuvers to gain control over the international human rights institutions and the current relative indifference of the U.S. Government to human rights issues, greater efforts must be made to try to stop the PRC campaign against human rights lawyers. One important, if largely symbolic, response would be for the U.S. to impose Magnitsky Act sanctions against those Chinese officials who are directly responsible for executing this notorious campaign, starting at the top of the Communist Party.