Detained Chinese Rights Lawyer 'Fires' Defense Team Under Suspected Duress

2018-04-23
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File photo of lawyer Yu Wensheng, who had taken up politically sensitive human rights cases and was taken away from his Beijing home by around a dozen police officers on Jan. 19, 2017.
File photo of lawyer Yu Wensheng, who had taken up politically sensitive human rights cases and was taken away from his Beijing home by around a dozen police officers on Jan. 19, 2017.
Yu Wensheng

Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu have issued a statement from human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, who was formally arrested last week on subversion charges, in which he fires his defense team, amid strong suspicions that he is acting under duress.

Yu, who is being held incommunicado by authorities in Jiangsu's Xuzhou city, was formally arrested for "incitement to subvert state power" and "obstruction of officials in the course of their duty."

"After careful consideration, I hereby dismiss the two defense lawyers hired by [my wife], Chang Boyang and Xie Yang," a handwritten statement shown to Yu's wife Xu Yan on Monday reads.

"I will in future be hiring my own defense lawyers, and request that my wife Xu Yan not hire any more lawyers for me," it said.

Xu said she was allowed to speak briefly with Yu by video chat on Monday.

"I asked him whether they had told him when he could come home, but Yu Wensheng didn't say," Xu said. "He was pretty quiet on the question of his statement, too, but towards the end, when we'd been chatting awhile, Yu Wensheng repeated two or three times that he had totally lost his freedom and was incapable of doing anything."

Xu said Yu had warned in a video recording and statement in May 2015 that if he ever "lost his freedom" and fired his own lawyers, it should be assumed that he was acting under duress, or had been tortured.

"If I lose my freedom, and if I sign any kind of statement, confession or guarantee in the absence of a lawyer, then none of the words in such documents can be taken to represent my true intentions," the recorded video statement said. "This statement was signed by Yu Wensheng on May 10, 2015."

Xu said Yu was likely alluding to that statement by the repeating the words "loss of freedom." "There is no way that I am going to accept that Yu Wensheng fired his lawyers of his own free will," she told RFA.

Defense attorney Chang Boyang said the firing of the defense team fits a pattern employed by the authorities in the cases of a number of rights lawyers detained in a nationwide crackdown since July 2015.

"It's still the same July 2015 pattern," Chang said. "It's likely that Yu Wensheng has made some concessions, given his current situation ... so we don't recognize this statement they have put out; as far as we are concerned, it has no effect."

Highly dubious statement

Chang said he and Xie would continue to do their best to represent Yu's interests.

"We are of the opinion that his actions don't constitute a crime," Chang said. "We will continue to do our jobs as his defense team."

Xie agreed, saying the statement was highly dubious.

"We expressed our doubts about the statement formally at the time, and we demanded a meeting with the authorities bringing the case, and with Yu Wensheng," he said. "They refused, in a very harsh and fierce manner."

"We will be applying to the Xuzhou municipal police department very soon for a meeting with Yu Wensheng, so as to confirm whether or not he really meant what was in the statement," Xie said.

Earlier this month, Xu Yan was herself detained and questioned by state security police in Xuzhou city suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power" for more than seven hours.

Yu has been held for more than two months without access to a defense attorney, and has been identified by London based rights group Amnesty International as being "at risk of torture" while he remains in incommunicado detention.

He was snatched away from his son by large numbers of police in a car park near his home and placed under criminal detention on Jan. 19, on suspicion of “obstructing public servants in the course of their duties," and was later transferred from Beijing to Jiangsu's Xuzhou city with the addition of the more serious charge of “incitement to subvert state power.”

China's embattled legal profession has been targeted with more than 300 detentions, summons, travel bans, and restrictions imposed on rights lawyers, activists and law firm staff since July 2015.

Rights lawyers who accept politically “sensitive” cases, or who are publicly outspoken on behalf of vulnerable groups, have also been prevented from practicing law because their business licenses are being revoked during a newly instituted annual review process.

Lawyers who try to defend clients held on suspicion of crimes ostensibly linked to “state security” concerns are also denied permission to meet with their clients, or are replaced by government appointed lawyers amid threats and pressure on the people who hired them.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Lam Kwok-lap for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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