Chinese activists Chen Jianfang and Li Xiaoling have won a prestigious human rights award in memory of a human rights campaigner who died in police detention after being denied access to adequate medical care.
The award, which comes amid an ever-widening crackdown on human rights advocates by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, is named for late human rights activist Cao Shunli, who died in police detention on March 14, 2014.
Chen, a Shanghai-based housing activist who was recently prevented from leaving China, and Li, who is currently herself in police detention in the southern province of Guangdong, were named as recipients of the 4th Cao Shunli Memorial Award for Human Rights Defenders by its founders, Civil Rights & Livelihood Watch, Human Rights Campaign in China, and the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network.
“The two women defenders are recognized for their contributions in promoting human rights at the grassroots level in China,” the overseas-based CHRD network said in a statement on its website.
Chen, 48, who hails from a rural community, began defending land and housing rights after her family lost land to government-backed developers.
Her work has highlighted the widespread mass evictions behind Shanghai’s skyscrapers and high-speed railways, key elements in China’s development showcase that mask widespread abuses of residents’ rights.
Chen told RFA in a brief text message on Wednesday that she was “delighted” at the award, and described Cao Shunli as “my spiritual teacher, from whom I learned some of the highest ideals.”
“My own rights defense work is indivisible from what she taught me,” Chen wrote.
Li has been in police detention since last year on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” a public order charge frequently used to target critics of the government.
She was detained on June 4, the 28th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, after she posted photos of herself standing on Tiananmen Square holding a sign that read: “June 4, marching towards the light.”
According to CHRD, Li has been ill-treated in custody, including by being deprived of medical treatment for glaucoma, a condition that has deteriorated during her current detention. Li also suffers from painful tumors on her body, the group said.
Her lawyers have also filed a lawsuit against the local police department, alleging torture, but repeated applications for medical parole have been refused, it said.
Li has been an outspoken advocate for China’s prisoners of conscience, and joined a movement calling for transparency around the personal assets of government officials and party members.
Fellow rights activist Xu Peiling said the award comes at a time of worsening rights abuses under President Xi Jinping, who now looks set to rule indefinitely.
“There aren’t so many people nowadays who are able to move around freely these days, whether we are talking about petitioners or rights activists,” Xu said. “The crackdown has been so intense … that there is nobody left who dares to stand up.”
She said many activists are currently under some form of detention or house arrest during the annual session of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC).
Beijing-based anti-eviction activist Ni Yulan said she had noticed a number of social media posts memorializing Cao, and had posted her own tribute.
‘Rights work is difficult’
She said anyone who undertakes human rights work in China is likely to face huge suffering as a consequence.
“When I was locked up in jail, I was unable to join with Cao Shunli in her human rights activities,” Ni said. “After I got out, she was already in detention, which eventually led to the loss of her life.”
“Human rights work is so difficult, and we would like to know that all of our efforts to advance human rights on behalf of our children and grandchildren, so that they will have a better world to live in, haven’t been in vain,” she said.
Cao was detained on Sept. 14, 2013, as she was boarding a flight to Geneva, where she was to attend a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, where she hoped to participate in drafting China’s human rights action plans and reports for its U.N. human rights reviews.
The award named for Cao is aimed at those who carry on her grassroots human rights work on behalf of vulnerable groups, in the face of threats from the authorities and other personal risks, and who push for more international monitoring of rights abuses in China.
It includes prize money to support ongoing initiatives and assist recipients who have suffered government reprisals for their activism.
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