The European Union has lodged a protest with China after police detained veteran rights lawyer Yu Wensheng and his activist wife Xu Yan ahead of a meeting with its diplomats during a scheduled EU-China human rights dialogue on April 13.
“We have already been taken away,” Yu tweeted shortly before falling silent on April 13, while the EU delegation to China tweeted on April 14: “@yuwensheng9 and @xuyan709 detained by CN authorities on their way to EU Delegation.”
“We demand their immediate, unconditional release. We have lodged a protest with MFA against this unacceptable treatment,” the tweet from the EU’s embassy in China said, referring to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell had been scheduled to travel to China from April 13-15 for the annual EU-China strategic dialogue with Foreign Minister Qin Gang, and to meet with China’s foreign policy chief Wang Yi, as well as the new Defense Minister Li Shangfu.
The visit, during which Yu and Xu had an invitation to go to the German Embassy for the afternoon of April 13, was to have followed last week’s trip by European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron.
But Borrell postponed the visit after testing positive for COVID-19, according to his Twitter account.
The EU Delegation said rights attorneys Wang Quanzhang, Wang Yu and Bao Longjun have also been placed under house arrest, but gave no further details.
Police officers read out a notice of detention to Xu and Yu’s 18-year-old son on Saturday night, giving the formal date of criminal detention as April 14, but didn’t leave any documentation with him or allow him to take photos of the notice, Wang Yu told Radio Free Asia on Monday.
Citing fellow rights attorneys Song Yusheng and Peng Jian, who visited the family home on Sunday, Wang said: “[The son] said that his parents were detained on the charge of picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” – a catch-all charge used to target critics of the Communist Party.
“The police showed his son the notice of criminal detention, but he was not allowed to take pictures, and they didn’t leave the notice for him. He was only shown it,” Wang Yu said. “They carried out a search of their home.”
Around seven officers searched the family home and took away a number of personal belongings without showing a warrant or issuing receipts, according to the rights website Weiquanwang.
Wang Yu, who received a call from the couple’s son on April 16, said the young man is now also under surveillance.
“The authorities sent people to stand guard over Yu Wensheng’s son, both inside and outside their home,” Wang said.
Defense lawyers blocked
She said police had prevented lawyers Song and Peng from representing the couple as defense attorneys.
“Song Yusheng and Peng Jian went to Yu Wensheng’s house and took his son to dinner,” she said. “They wanted his son to sign a letter instructing them as attorneys, but Peng Jian told me that the police refused to sign off on it.”
“Yu Wensheng’s brother told me that the police told him that Xu Yan has already hired a lawyer,” she said. “This is the same as the way they handled the July 2015 crackdown, preventing family members from instructing lawyers, and stopping the lawyers from defending [detainees].”
Since a nationwide crackdown on hundreds of rights attorneys and law firms in 2015, police have begun to put pressure on the families of those detained for political dissent to fire their lawyers and allow the government to appoint a lawyer on their behalf, in the hope of a more lenient sentence.
Wang Yu said the charges against the couple were trumped up.
“Criminal detention is legally equivalent to being suspected of a crime,” she said. “But according to the information we have from family members and online, there is no evidence that Yu Wensheng or Xu Yan engaged in any illegal activities.”
Wang Qiaoling, wife of rights lawyer Li Heping, said her family is currently also under surveillance.
“When we were taking our kids to class on Sunday morning, we saw that there were cars following us, and they followed us onto the expressway,” she said Monday. “It was the same today.”
“They always place us under surveillance whenever a foreign leader visits China, but we don’t understand why they are doing it now, when the [scheduled] visit is over,” she said.
The Spain-based rights group Safeguard Defenders said the couple’s disappearance should be a matter for EU-China relations, noting the use of “residential surveillance” to prevent fellow rights lawyers from defending the couple.
“[Residential surveillance] is growing in use and new legal teeth have made it a far harsher experience,” the group said via its Twitter account.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.