HONG KONG – A prominent Chinese human rights lawyer who was released two weeks ago after spending 4 ½ years in prison for subversion has been prohibited from reuniting with his family for the second time, after a 14-day quarantine period amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wang Quanzhang’s wife and rights groups fear the authorities are using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to continue holding him indefinitely under de facto house arrest, as has happened to many Chinese right activists who completed their prison terms.
Wang, a lawyer who had defended political activists and members of the banned Falun Gong sect, was released April 4 but was barred from returning home by the authorities, who took him to his hometown, Jinan, in the eastern province of Shandong, 400 kilometers south of Beijing, for compulsory quarantine.
The authorities told him upon his release that he would be freed after 14 days of quarantine. However, on Sunday, the day he should be free to go home, Wang was still barred from returning to Beijing, where his wife and 7-year-old son live, his wife, Li Wenzu, said.
She said Wang told her by phone Saturday that he was unable to come home because he had “just come out and needed to get used to [everything].” She questioned whether he was speaking of his free will.
“Did this really come from him?” she asked, “I am shocked, they said he’d be freed after 14 days but now his freedom of communications and personal freedom continue to be limited.”
Li said since his release, her husband has been living under surveillance and was only able to call her under the supervision of police, who controlled the content and length of their conversations. She said Wang told her that outspoken online postings she had written that were critical of authorities “were causing him trouble” and told her to delete them.
“This is not the Wang Quanzhang I knew,” she said. “His courage and strength appeared to have been taken away by some supernatural power … The pain is like a knife stabbing into my bleeding heart.”
Chinese rights activists are often released from prison into de facto house arrest or enforced restriction to their villages, where they are obliged to remain for years, leading New York University School of Law China expert Jerome Cohen to dub the practice “non-release release.”
Rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who was officially released from jail in February 2019, was taken by security police to his home village in rural Henan province, where he has remained under 24-hour police surveillance since.
Rights groups Sunday condemned Wang’s prolonged, extralegal detention.
Human Rights Watch China researcher Yaqiu Wang said the authorities’ treatment of the lawyer is “a complete travesty of justice” and “is part of the authorities’ most recent scheme of using the coronavirus as a pretext to restrict the freedom of human rights activists, lawyers and independent journalists.”
“The Chinese government seems determined to silence Wang indefinitely, through first sham prosecutions and now this completely bogus reason for him to be ‘quarantined.’ Who knows what reasons authorities will come up with after the pandemic is passed to continue to restrict Wang’s movement and freedom of speech,” she said.
William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International said Wang’s “continued non-freedom is appalling, but not at all surprising.”
“The suppression of [the rights lawyer] community, combined with the Communist Party’s systematic use of incommunicado detention, torture and ill-treatment, harassment of family members, show trials, and post-release surveillance has given the international community a clear warning of what to expect under China’s understanding of ‘rule by law,’” he said.
Francine Chan, executive director of Hong Kong’s China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, said the authorities’ treatment of Wang is just “a manifestation of the continued suppression of human rights lawyers” since the notorious 2015 crackdown on lawyers and activists that Wang was swept up in.
Detained in August 2015, Wang was sentenced to jail in January 2019 on the blanket charge of “subversion of state power” after 3 ½ years of incommunicado detention where he was at risk of torture.
Wang was one of more than 300 lawyers and activists detained in a wave of crackdown on rights lawyers which started in July 2015. He was the last lawyer of the group to be convicted.