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Jailed Chinese NGO worker ‘tortured’ in Hunan’s Chishan Prison, according to letters

Jailed Chinese NGO worker Cheng Yuan has been subjected to torture in a ‘high security’ sector of Hunan province’s Chishan Prison, according to his family.

Cheng, who founded the Changsha Funeng NGO, was tried in secret at the Changsha Intermediate People’s Court in September 2020 for “subversion of state power” alongside two colleagues, after being held incommunicado for nearly 18 months, according to Cheng’s wife Shi Minglei, who arrived in the U.S. with the couple’s daughter on April 7, 2021.

Since his transfer to Chishan Prison on Jan. 18, 2022, he has been detained in the high-security wing in a tiny cell and subjected to bright lights and chronic sleep deprivation, according to three handwritten letters received by Cheng’s family on July 5, Shi told RFA.

“We’re talking about a tiny cell with room only for a single bed, no room to move around, and no windows, with very strong lights on 24 hours a day,” Shi said. “They don’t let you sleep under a quilt … and you’re not allowed to sleep on your side.”

She cited Taiwanese democracy activist Lee Ming-cheh — who also served time in Chishan Prison — as saying that high-security detainees suffer from extreme constipation due to reduced rations.

“We think it’s very likely that they are trying to get Cheng Yuan to implicate other people, but that he is very unwilling to do so,” Shi said. “So they used this very cruel form of torture to force him … locking him in there for three months.”

Weight loss, white hair

Shi said Cheng’s hair had turned white in prison, and he had lost a large amount of weight, reading out a section from one of the letters:

“You may be sad and upset to see me: I have lost 12 pounds now, and my hair is nearly totally white,” she quoted Cheng’s letter as saying.

“My husband used to weigh more than 120 pounds, so basically he’s a little over 100 pounds now … actually, very, very thin,” Shi said. “Our family all cried for a long time when they read those two sentences.”

Patrick Poon, a visiting researcher at the Institute of Comparative Law at Japan’s Meiji University, believes that the confinement has likely caused significant physical and psychological harm to Cheng Yuan.

“He can’t even see a lawyer, so they can’t help him file a complaint,” Poon said. “Being locked up in such conditions for several months will have long-term effects and cause damage to his mind and body.”

Poon said Chinese law bans torture and cruel or degrading treatment of prisoners and detainees — in theory, at least.

“In actual fact, [prisons] are able to get away without any regulation, basically,” Poon said. “It’s a very serious violation of detainees’ rights.”

Lawyers fired

Cheng, Liu Dazhi, and Wuge Jianxiong all stood trial sometime between Aug. 31 and Sept. 4, 2020, according to the overseas-based rights group Front Line Defenders. Their families weren’t informed of the trial, and were therefore unable to attend.

Wu’s father, the Zhejiang-based lawyer Wu Youshui, said his son had been handed a three-year jail term, while Liu was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in a judgment handed down on July 20, 2021.

But there was no information given on the sentence handed down to Cheng, he said.

The three defendants have been denied meetings with attorneys hired by their families since being detained on July 22, 2019.

The lawyers were told in March 2020 that the defenders had “dismissed” them and that the government had assigned them government-funded lawyers.

But the families said they believe that the lawyers were fired under duress, and said they have had no contact with the government-appointed lawyers.

Changsha Funeng co-founder Yang Zhanqing, who now lives in the U.S., has previously said that the three men were targeted because their rights work had received overseas funding, which the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regards as “collusion with hostile foreign forces,” and a threat to its national security.

In a statement co-signed by the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and the Rights Practice, Front Line Defenders said the three men had “advocated for the rights of marginalized groups and worked to protect the rights of the most vulnerable people in society.”

Changsha Funeng sought to prevent discrimination and ensure equality in line with Chinese law by using the courts to strengthen protections for individuals living with disabilities and with HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases, it said.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.