Authorities in Beijing have detained two artists after they carried a banner through the streets of the capital calling for the abolition of "re-education through labor," an overseas rights group said on Thursday.
Tibetan artist Kuang Laowu and collaborator Zhui Hun, known in the art world by his pseudonym Liu Jinxing, were criminally detained on charges of "gathering a crowd to disrupt social order," the China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group said in an emailed statement.
They were stopped by police on Sept. 26 as they carried a large banner through the streets of Beijing's Tongzhou district.
Liu's wife told RFA that she had received no direct official notification of her husband's detention from police.
"The police sent the notification to my husband's family home, so I had to get them to photograph it and send it over to me," she said. "It said he had been criminally detained for gathering a crowd to disrupt public order."
The artists are believed to have been specifically condemning the detention of Hua Yong, an artist sent for re-education through labor after engaging in performance art near Tiananmen Square on this year’s anniversary of the June 4 military crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy movement, CHRD said.
"[They] made a banner that said 'Artists call for an end to re-education through labor and freedom for the [detained] artist'," said Liu's wife, who was herself briefly detained and released on bail.
Beijing-based writer Wang Lihong said the artists had performed the stunt after a bout of drinking together. "It was just before the mid-Autumn festival," he said. "They should abolish re-education through labor, and what's illegal about performance art?"
The artists are currently being held in the Tongzhou district detention center, and have been denied access to a lawyer.
"The rules state that [Liu] should be allowed a meeting with a lawyer. The lawyer went there a second time [on Tuesday], but they told him they were waiting for approval from higher levels of authorities and that he wouldn't be allowed to meet [Liu] until they had that," she said.
CHRD said that lawyer Liang Xiaojun, who is representing Liu, had gone to the detention center together with Kuang's lawyer Guo Haiyue, who had also been turned away.
"[The] guards turned them away, claiming that they had not received instructions from superiors allowing such visits," the group said.
Repeated calls on Wednesday to the cell phone of Kuang's wife, Zhao Yue, met with a message saying the phone was switched off.
However, Beijing-based writer Wang Cang, who witnessed the artists' protest, said that Zhao had been subjected to a forced eviction following pressure on her landlord from the authorities. He said the couple had allegedly failed to obtain a temporary residence permit for the district.
"Kuang Laowu's wife had to move house after pressure from their landlord," Wang said. "The Tongzhou police and the local village committee fined the landlord 500 yuan, and forced him to make Zhao Yue move out."
The lawyers' protest comes amid growing calls from lawyers, activists and academics for an end to "Re-education-through-labor" (RTL) sentences, which are administrative, controlled by the police, and can be handed down for up to a maximum of three years without the need for a trial.
Lawyers argue that the system has no basis in China's current law, is a holdover from the political turmoil and kangaroo courts of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and is a long-running violation of the rights of citizens.
Last month, a group of 10 Chinese lawyers sent an open letter to China’s ministries of justice and public security, calling for “adjustments” to the RTL system, receiving wide coverage in China's tightly controlled official media.
The letter was prompted by the case of Tang Hui, a woman from the central province of Hunan who was sent to labor camp for challenging the prison sentences of men convicted of raping her daughter.
The authorities have also rolled out trial "reforms" of the RTL system in four Chinese cities, but rights groups say any changes are likely to be cosmetic.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese service, by Xin Yu for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.