As U.S. and Chinese officials met in Beijing to discuss human rights amid calls for greater pressure on the ruling Chinese Communist Party, detained lawyer Wang Yu was awarded a European prize for her work defending the rights of her clients.
Wang Yu, currently detained in the northern port city of Tianjin on suspicion of "subversion of state power," was awarded the prestigious Ludovic Trarieux Prize in Athens on Saturday.
The award comes as the families of dozens of rights lawyers detained on similar charges hit out at the government for denying the detainees access to their lawyers, and amid concerns that some detainees may have been tortured or sexually abused in police detention centers.
The prize jury said it wanted to "hail the courage" of a woman who "decided that she could no longer keep her mouth shut," founder Bernard Favreau said.
"She chose to expose herself to dangers in order to defend the rights of women, children and persecuted minorities," he told Agence France-Presse.
Wang's defense attorney Wen Donghai welcomed the award.
"They used a serious of objective criteria, for example, the fact that Wang Yu often gave legal assistance to clients from vulnerable groups," Wen said. "This has nothing to do with any government, nor with diplomacy."
But he said the award is unlikely to help Wang's case with the Chinese authorities.
"I don't hold out much hope of that, because our government has a very biased attitude to such prizes, and they see human rights groups as trying to interfere in China's internal affairs," Wen said.
"In reality, rights groups aren't targeting China, but trying to help victims and vulnerable people around the world."
Strategic and economic dialogue
The announcement came as officials met for the U.S.-China strategic and economic dialogue, which includes discussion of human rights issues.
"This is the Obama administration’s last best chance to show it incorporates human rights across the scope of the bilateral relationship and demands change, from law enforcement cooperation to surveillance on ethnic minority regions, to Beijing’s ferocious assault on civil society," Sophie Richardson, China director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement on Monday.
"U.S. human rights advocacy with China can succeed when it is unapologetic, public, and argued by diverse interests," Richardson said.
After the detention of top rights attorney Wang Yu, her husband Bao Longjun, and their colleagues at the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm on the night of July 9, 2015, police launched a nationwide operation targeting hundreds of rights lawyers, law firm staff and activists nationwide.
Wang is being charged with the more serious charge of "subversion of state power," while Bao's arrest is for the lesser charge of "incitement to subvert state power."
"Subversion of state power" carries a minimum jail term of 10 years in cases where the person is judged to have played a leading role. Jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo is currently serving a 13-year sentence for "incitement to subvert state power," which attracts a minimum penalty of five years' imprisonment in cases deemed "serious."
Hong Kong march
In Hong Kong, protesters marched to Beijing's Liaison Office in the former British colony on Monday, demanding an inquiry into the 2012 "suicide" death of Chinese labor rights activist Li Wangyang in police custody four years ago.
Democratic Party politician Cheung Man-kwong said the anniversary was a rare opportunity to focus minds on Li's death, which is still widely regarded as suspicious.
"This anniversary only comes around once a year," Cheung said. "By standing here, we are waging a battle against forgetting, and we hope to show that the people of Hong Kong haven't forgotten Li Wangyang."
Li was photographed hanged in his hospital room in Hunan province, but reports that his feet were touching the floor sparked suspicion around police claims of suicide. However, a government inquiry found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Rights activist Ou Biaofeng said Li's friends and relatives are under house arrest or close police surveillance on the anniversary of his death.
"They are all under surveillance by the state security police, and are cooperating," Ou said. "There are dozens of state security police mobilized in [Li's home city of] Shaoyang."
"All the dissidents or people close to Li Wangyang are under restrictions," Ou said.
Calls to Li's sister Li Wangling and her husband rang unanswered on Monday.
No online memorials
Hunan activist Tian Zhenglin said the activist community would remember Li in their own way, however.
"We're not allowed to post memorials online, because the state security police came to my house and warned me not to do this on June 3," Tian said.
"I'm not allowed to say anything against the government or [ruling Chinese Communist] Party," Tian said.
HRW and nine other organizations on Monday signed a joint letter calling on U.S. officials to make a point of calling for the release of peaceful activists and lawyers, as well as meeting with nongovernmental groups and taking Beijing to task for the government’s persecution of religious groups.
"Chinese authorities have committed or tolerated gross human rights violations," the group said.
"Few members of the police or other security forces are held accountable for torture or other abuses, and there is no political or legal impulse for fundamental reforms necessary to curb their power," it said.
In February, United Nations rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein hit out at Beijing for its imprisonment of peaceful critics and activists who appeared to have committed no crime.
But Beijing rejected the comments as "irresponsible", adding in a statement that Zeid had a "biased, subjective and selective" view of the country.
Reported by Wong Lok-to and Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.