Concerns grow over treatment of detained #MeToo activist after she 'fires' attorney

Sophia Huang has been in incommunicado detention for a year amid repeated delays to her 'subversion' trial.
By Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin
Concerns grow over treatment of detained #MeToo activist after she 'fires' attorney Sophia Huang, a journalist and #MeToo activist, is shown in an undated photo.
Sophia Huang

One year after her incommunicado detention for "subversion," #MeToo activist and feminist journalist Sophia Huang has dismissed her defense attorney, suggesting she is under huge pressure to plead guilty and 'confess' to the charges against her, rights groups said.

"Huang’s current situation in the detention center remains unknown," the Free Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing campaign said in a statement on its Github page.

It said that while Huang's family had hired defense attorney Wan Miaoyan to represent her, police had presented a letter signed by Huang terminating the lawyer's instruction.

When Wan tried to visit Huang at the detention center, the request was denied on the basis of COVID-19 control and prevention measures.

"Huang has been represented by a government-appointed lawyer(s) since then," the campaign said, adding that she is still being held incommunicado, meaning family and friends have no way of knowing how she is doing in detention.

"This is a very worrying situation," it said. "[It] raises suspicions that Huang was coerced into making this decision."

Police transferred Huang and Wang's cases to the Guangzhou municipal prosecution service on March 27. Both face charges of "incitement to subvert state power."

Huang is being held at the Guangzhou No. 1 Detention Center after being transferred from the No. 2 Detention Center, while Wang was held in solitary confinement "for interrogation," activists said.

Huang had planned to leave China via Hong Kong on Sept. 20, 2021 for the U.K., where she planned to take a master's degree in development with a prestigious Chevening Scholarship.

Wang, who is a labor and healthcare rights activist, had planned to see her off on her journey. But both were detained before she could board her flight.

'Supplementary investigation'

A friend of Huang's who gave only the name Tom said he was very surprised that Huang had apparently dismissed her attorney.

"Firstly, the lawyer hired by her family is a good friend of hers," he said. "He was also her lawyer when she was initially arrested."

"Under what circumstances did she make this decision? Was it voluntary? What sort of physical and mental state was she in? We have no way of knowing," Tom said.

Since Huang and Wang's cases were sent to the prosecutor in March, they had twice been sent back for "supplementary investigation" due to lack of evidence, with the case once more sent to the prosecution in mid-August, he said.

He said Wang was in solitary confinement for the first five months, with no contact with anyone outside the facility.

"His mental and physical state was very poor at that time, because he was so depressed," Tom said. "He was sent back [to the detention center] after that, and may be recovering a little now ... at least he's slightly better off than during those five months in solitary confinement."

Human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, who was himself held in long-term, incommunicado detention from July 2015, said sending cases back for "supplementary investigation" is a common delaying tactic in such cases.

"This practice has a very obvious impact on the rights and interests of the detainees," Wang told RFA. "The long-term and indefinite detention of detainees is itself a kind of punishment, which is seriously damaging to them."

"This sort of physical and psychological damage is obviously a violation of the rights and interests of criminal suspects," he said.

Calls for protection

The overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network called along with dozens of other rights groups for Huang and Wang's rights to be protected in detention.

"We, the undersigned civil society groups, call on Chinese authorities to respect and protect their rights in detention, including access to legal counsel, unfettered communication with family members, their right to health and their right to bodily autonomy," the groups said in a Sept. 19 statement marking the anniversary of Huang and Wang's detention.

"We ... call for their release and for authorities to allow them to carry out their work and make important contributions to social justice," CHRD said.

"We are deeply worried about [Huang's] physical and mental health, and reiterate that incommunicado detention is a grave violation of international law," it said.

It said some 70 friends and acquaintances of Huang and Wang had been summoned for questioning by police across China, with some of them interrogated for up to 24 hours, or repeatedly interrogated.

"The police also coerced and threatened some individuals to sign false statements admitting that they had participated in training activities that had the intention of ‘subverting state power’ and that simple social gatherings were in fact political events to encourage criticism of the government," it said.

Before being targeted by the authorities in 2019, Huang had been an outspoken member of the country's #MeToo movement, and had carried out a survey of sexual harassment and assault cases among Chinese women working in journalism.

Huang was present at a million-strong protest in Hong Kong on June 9, 2019 against plans to allow extradition to mainland China, and was detained for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" in October 2019, before being released on bail in January 2020, a status that often involves ongoing surveillance and restrictions on a person's activities.

Her travel documents were also confiscated after her return, preventing her from beginning a law degree in Hong Kong the fall of 2019.

Huang had previously assisted in the investigation and reporting of a number of high-profile sexual harassment allegations against professors at Peking University, Wuhan University of Technology, Henan University and Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.

Wang started to work in rural development after graduating in 2005, before joining the Guangzhou Gongmin NGO in 2014 and director and coordinator for youth work.

In 2018, he started advocacy and legal support work on behalf of workers with occupational diseases, and was a vocal supporter of China's #MeToo movement.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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