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Taiwanese rights activist home from China after five-year ‘subversion’ jail term

Taiwanese rights activist and NGO worker Lee Ming-cheh has arrived home on the democratic island following his release at the end of a five-year jail term for “subversion” in China.

“After being improperly detained by China for more than 1,852 days, Lee Ming-cheh arrived at Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport at around 10 a.m. today, April 15, 2022,” a coalition of rights groups that has campaigned for Lee’s release said in a statement.

“Due to disease prevention regulations, neither the [coalition] nor family members were able to meet him at the airport,” it said, adding that a news conference would likely be held when Lee has completed his quarantine period.

Lee was shown in local live TV footage arriving off a Xiamen Air flight to Taipei and being escorted to a car by two people in full personal protective gear.

“When I finally returned to Taiwan, I saw Ching-yu, who was looking tired and wan but very excited, through the window,” Lee said in a joint statement issued with his wife, Lee Ching-yu.

“I am still very tired and the world seems quite unfamiliar, although my current isolation is completely different from the isolation I experienced in China,” he said. “Now I am embraced by love, not besieged by terror.”

The statement continued: “Our family’s suffering is over, but there are still countless people whose human rights are being violated in China. May they one day have their day of liberation, too.”

“We know that freedom comes from oneself, just as the people of Taiwan traded blood and tears under martial law for freedom, democracy and human rights,” the letter said. “May the Chinese people know and learn from this.”

Taiwan’s government said Lee’s incarceration was “unacceptable.”

“Lee Ming-cheh … was tried by a Chinese court for ‘subversion of state power’ and imprisoned for five years, which is unacceptable to the people of Taiwan,” Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) spokesman Chiu Chui-cheng told reporters on Friday.

He called on the Chinese government to protect the rights of Taiwanese nationals in China.

‘Vilifying China’

Lee is a course director at Taiwan’s Wenshan Community College, and had volunteered with various NGOs for many years, the Free Lee Ming-cheh Coalition said in a statement posted on the Covenants Watch rights group’s Facebook page.

“The Free Lee Ming-cheh Coalition has always believed that Lee Ming-cheh is innocent,” it said. “He has only ever concerned himself with commenting on human rights in China, civil society and other similar issues online.”

“The treatment he received after being imprisoned was hardly in line with international human rights standards,” the group said.

“Apart from being forced to eat bad food, to live in unheated quarters, and wear discarded clothes … Lee’s right to communicate was also restricted,” it said.

“We will continue to monitor Ming-cheh’s physical and mental health following his return to Taiwan,” it said.

His release comes after he was held for most of his sentence at Chishan Prison in the central Chinese province of Hunan, where authorities repeatedly refused to allow his wife to visit him.

Lee was also barred from speaking to his wife on the phone, or from writing letters home, Amnesty International’s Taiwan branch has said.

Lee applied to visit her husband at the prison 16 times during the past two years, but was refused every time, although the family members of other prisoners had visiting rights at the time, it said.

A lifelong activist with Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is vilified by Beijing for refusing to accept its claim on the island, Lee was sentenced by Hunan’s Yueyang Intermediate People’s Court to five years in jail for “attempting to subvert state power” in November 2017.

He was accused of setting up social media chat groups to “vilify China.”

Cross-strait tensions

According to statistics from Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF), Lee Ming-cheh is among 149 Taiwan nationals to have gone missing in China since Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President Tsai Ing-wen took office in 2016.

While the Chinese authorities had assisted in providing some information on 82 missing Taiwanese, some information on the remaining 67 had been withheld or was insufficient to draw any conclusion.

Eeling Chiu, secretary general of Amnesty International’s Taiwan branch, warned that what happened to Lee could happen to citizens of any country, citing the case of Swedish national and Hong Kong-based publisher Gui Minhai, who remains behind bars in China after being arrested in Thailand for alleged “crimes” committed in Hong Kong.

Taiwan was ruled as a Japanese colony in the 50 years prior to the end of World War II, but was handed back to the 1911 Republic of China under the Kuomintang (KMT) government as part of Tokyo’s post-war reparation deal.

The KMT made its capital there after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists that led to the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

While the Chinese Communist Party claims Taiwan as an “inalienable” part of its territory, Taiwan has never been ruled by the current regime in Beijing, nor has it ever formed part of the People’s Republic of China.

The Republic of China has remained a sovereign and independent state since 1911, now ruling just four islands: Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu.

The island began a transition to democracy following the death of KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek’s son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.

Taiwan’s national security agency has repeatedly warned of growing attempts to flood Taiwan with propaganda and disinformation, and to infiltrate its polity using Beijing-backed media and political groups.

Lawmakers say the country is doing all it can to guard against growing attempts at political infiltration and influence by the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department in Taiwan.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.