Volunteers at the 64 Tianwang rights watch website have been summoned for questioning by the authorities in China after the site’s founder and editor was taken away by police.
Police in Sichuan burst into Huang Qi’s home last Monday, searching it and detaining him. He has not been heard from since.
Tianwang is an independent news site that posts articles and information about human rights incidents in China, including detentions by police, forced demolitions, petitioner activism and demonstrations.
Since Saturday, Tianwang volunteers have been summoned by police for questioning, US-backed Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported. One volunteer in Ya’an, a city in Sichuan province, was told by police that Huang Qi had committed serious criminal offences and that Tianwang was a hostile foreign website, according to another citizen journalist.
“The police station looked for him for questioning and asked him whether he was a volunteer for Tianwang, what his relationship with Huang Qi was, and whether Huang Qi received money for posting articles,” the citizen journalist told RFA.
“[The volunteer] asked if they were going to make a clean sweep of the volunteers. The police station did not answer directly – just said that Huang Qi committed serious criminal offenses and that 64 Tianwang was a foreign website.”
A volunteer Li Zhaoxiu told the news service that at least two volunteers were summoned for questioning on Monday. Aside from the two, Huang’s mother was also uncontactable, another volunteer is detained, and the volunteer who originally reported Huang’s detention is still missing.
“From the situation, it seems that they are being questioned, it seems like maybe they are looking for evidence against Huang Qi,” she said.
Huang’s mother told RFA shortly after Huang’s detention that she was under close surveillance by police. She was taken to the hospital after trying to stop police from searching her home last Monday.
Huang was the third major rights defense figure in China to disappear or be detained recently, after the disappearances of lawyer Jiang Tianyong and citizen journalist Liu Feiyue, who activists believe to be in police custody. Rights groups say the three cases are a signal of an escalation in China’s crackdown on civil society.
The Committee to Protect Journalists called for the immediate and unconditional release of Huang and Liu last week.
“The arrest of Huang Qi signals a renewed effort to punish those who publish material the Chinese government does not wish to see made public,” CPJ Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney said. “We call on Chinese authorities to release Huang immediately and to cease jailing online journalists for reporting the news.”
The use of subversion charges – which carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment – against Liu are evidence of the government’s growing intolerance of reporting on political protests and human rights abuses, Mahoney said.
On Tuesday, a group of United Nations human rights experts urged the Chinese government to investigate the whereabouts of Jiang, saying that they cannot rule out the possibility that he may have been disappeared by state agents because of his human rights work.
“Combined with the reports of hundreds of human rights defenders in China that have been harassed, arrested, criminally charged, detained, or gone missing since the ‘709 crackdown’ in July 2015, we fear that Mr. Jiang’s disappearance may be directly linked to his advocacy and he may be at risk of torture,” they said.