Chen Guangcheng, a blind, 39-year-old self-taught human rights lawyer in China who was recently released after years in prison, has been put in home detention, isolated and beaten by authorities. Winner of numerous human rights awards, Chen was imprisoned for investigating violence and forced abortions against families in China. He is one of many Chinese human rights lawyers and advocates who have been harassed, imprisoned and disappeared recently.
Since being released from prison in September 2010, Chen, his wife and his young daughter have been cut off from phone, Internet and personal contact. They are confined to their home, which is surrounded by guards 24 hours a day.
China Aid posted a video on their web site in which Chen describes being monitored around the clock by three shifts of 22 agents each.
After the video was posted, Chen and his wife were beaten. Journalists from CNN, Le Monde and The New York Times who tried to visit him have been threatened and harassed. Two lawyers, Tang Jitian and Jiang Tianyong, were detained by police in Beijing after discussing Chen's situation, according to Time Magazine.
Chen, who has minimal formal legal training, began his legal career by challenging his own taxes. Later, he helped an organization of farmers fight to close a paper mill polluting local water.
In 2002, Newsweek recognized Chen as part of a new generation of "barefoot lawyers" who were helping people assert their legal and human rights. (The term "barefoot lawyers" is preceded by the nickname for Chinese people who were trained in basic medical education and then sent out into their communities as "barefoot doctors.")
The International Federation for Human Rights reported that Chen was arrested in March 2006 after investigating, putting together briefs and campaigning against the use of government violence and forced abortions in the enforcement of the national population policies of one-child birth quotas in Linyi, China. He spent over four years in prison after a two-hour trial, during which his lawyer was not allowed inside the courtroom.
Now? "I have come out of a small jail and walked into a bigger jail," said Chen, according to United Press International (UPI), which recognized this statement as its "understatement of the week."
Numerous other Chinese human rights advocates and lawyers have been arrested, disbarred or disappeared. Gao Zhisheng - the most prominent human rights lawyer in China who ran the Open Constitution Initiative from his home - once recognized as one of the top 10 lawyers in China, was hooded and dragged from his home by government agents in 2009 and has not been seen since. Guo Feixiong, another human rights lawyer, was imprisoned in 2007 after assisting villagers challenging corruption. Human rights lawyer Liu Shihui, recently denied a license to continue practicing law, was hooded, beaten and had his leg fractured outside his home on his way to a protest in support of the Jasmine Revolution. Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11-year prison sentence for helping draft Charter 08 calling for democratic freedoms; his family is under house arrest as well.
What can we in the US do to assist human rights defenders in China?
First, we must work to get our own house in order. Unfortunately, the US has given the world many examples of human rights violations, especially in the last ten years. We must demand transparency and accountability for our own government's human rights abuses. Without that action, it is unlikely other countries will take the US seriously when it asks them to respect human rights.
Second, we can insist that the US government grow a spine and consistently apply international human rights standards when we deal with other countries. Most elected officials are concerned about human rights obligations only in the countries where they think US interests are at stake, and then, human rights are all too frequently just bargaining chips in the quest for economic and military advantage.
Third, we must take individual actions to strengthen human rights and to protect human rights defenders. The International Federation for Human Rights has a Human Rights Defenders program, which sends out alerts when human rights advocates are at risk. People can also write the People's Republic of China, c/o Embassy for the People's Republic of China, 2300 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, DC, 20008.
Courageous people like Chen Guangcheng and others should inspire us all to work more diligently and take more risks for justice and human rights in China, in the US and in all countries.