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China: Human rights defenders given long jail terms, tortured – UN expert

28 June 2021


GENEVA (28 June 2021) - The UN’s independent expert on human rights defenders said today she feared activists in China were being arbitrarily sentenced to long terms in prison or house arrest, and tortured, as well as being denied access to medical treatment, their lawyers and families.

Condemning human rights defenders, in particular to long terms in prison for their peaceful human rights work, abusing them in custody and failing to provide them with adequate medical care is something that cannot continue,” said Mary Lawlor, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

I have received countless reports indicating that the mistreatment of human rights defenders in Chinese custody remains endemic and may amount to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, despite the plethora of documentation and recommendations from UN mechanisms over the years, including from the Committee Against Torture.”

She said some defenders, such as Gao Zhisheng, have been forcibly disappeared, while some others, such as Guo Hongwei, have died in prison.

Lawlor said she was aware of at least 13 human rights defenders who have been sentenced on spurious charges, such as ‘picking quarrels’ or ‘provoking trouble’, to 10 years or more in jail for peacefully defending the rights of others.

Among them are Qin Yongmin, who during his life has been sentenced to 35 years in prison in connection to his human rights work, including the promotion of engagement with the UN, and Ilham Tohti, a moderate scholar, who is serving a life sentence. Tohti was arbitrarily arrested, allegedly tortured, and sentenced to life after a closed-door trial. He was not allowed any family visits and no information has been provided by Chinese authorities since.

Human rights defender Chen Xiis currently serving a prison sentence of 10 years. It is reported that he has been subjected to ill-treatment and possibly torture. He has developed chronic enteritis which causes dehydration and fever. Each winter he has contracted severe frostbite on his hands, ears and abdominal area. In his lifetime, Chen Xi has been sentenced to 23 years in prison.

Lawyer Yu Wensheng, who was arrested in April 2018 and sentenced to four years in prison after a secret trial, is being denied adequate medical care in jail and is suffering from a number of serious medical conditions. Huang Qiis serving a 12-year jail sentence in connection with his human rights work. He suffers from high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic kidney condition and hydrocephalus. Reportedly, Huang has not had adequate access to health care in prison, and his health condition is deteriorating.

Woman human rights defender Li Qiaochu has been detained under laws with vague provisions open to arbitrary interpretation that carry long jail terms. Her current whereabouts in detention are unclear, Lawlor said.

Issuing arbitrary prison sentences, in particular long term prison sentences, to defenders in connection to their human rights work is an unacceptable attempt to silence them and their efforts, and to intimidate and deter others from engaging in this legitimate work,” Lawlor said. “Many have been denied access to lawyers of their choosing and to their families. In some instances, the same lawyers and their relatives are also targeted.

I call on the Chinese authorities to immediately release these human rights defenders from detention, and ensure that they can continue their meaningful and necessary human rights work without fear of retribution of any kind, including against their relatives.”

The expert is in contact with the Chinese authorities on the matter.

The expert’s call is endorsed by: Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Ms. Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health; Mr. Tae-Ung Baik (Chair), Mr. Henrikas Mickevičius, (Vice Chair), Ms. Aua Balde, Mr. Bernard Duhaime and Mr. Luciano Hazan, Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; Elizabeth Broderick (Chair), Melissa Upreti (Vice Chair), Dorothy Estrada-Tanck, Ivana Radačić, and Meskerem Geset Techane, Working Group on discrimination against women and girls.


Ms Mary Lawlor, (Ireland) is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. She is currently an Adjunct Professor of Business and Human Rights in Trinity College Dublin. She was the founder of Front Line Defenders - the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. As Executive Director from 2001-2016, she represented Front Line Defenders and had a key role in its development. Ms. Lawlor was previously Director of the Irish Office of Amnesty International from 1988 to 2000, after becoming a member of the Board of Directors 1975 and being elected its President from 1983 to 1987.

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / [email protected])

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