German Chancellor Angela Merkel met the wives of two detained Chinese human rights lawyers during her trip to Beijing last week in a rare move for a visiting leader, the women told AFP Monday.
Heads of state or government often avoid making major public statements about human rights during their trips to China, or holding meetings with activists or relatives.
Merkel did not mention the meeting with the two women during her two-day visit on Thursday and Friday, though she said she brought up human rights during her talks with Premier Li Keqiang.
Li’s husband Wang Quanzhang is an attorney who represented political activists and disappeared in a 2015 police sweep. He has been charged with “subversion of state power”.
Li showed AFP a photo of her meeting with Merkel during which the chancellor rests her right hand on her shoulder as they smile at each other.
“I thanked Merkel for her attention and support to 709 lawyers,” Li told AFP, referring to a group of attorneys rounded up in a crackdown on July 9, 2015.
Wang was among more than 200 Chinese human rights lawyers and activists who were detained or questioned that day, the largest clampdown on the legal profession in recent history.
While the majority were released on bail, a handful were convicted of various crimes and sentenced to up to seven years in prison.
Wang is the last person in the so-called 709 crackdown to remain in legal limbo and no trial date has been set for him.
“I asked Merkel to help me confirm with Chinese officials whether Wang Quanzhang is still alive, and if he is, to please help me urge Chinese officials to allow my lawyer to meet him,” Li said in an email.
“Merkel showed concern over the situation to me, my husband and my child, and said she will continue to support and pay attention to us.”
Merkel also met Xu Yan. Her husband Yu Wensheng was charged with “inciting subversion of state power” in January, a week after he was detained as he prepared to take his son to school in Beijing.
German human rights commissioner Barbel Kofler later called for Yu’s release, drawing a rebuke from China.
Human rights activists had hoped that Merkel’s visit would help persuade Chinese authorities to allow poet Liu Xia, the widow of dissident Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, to leave the country.
But Liu Xia remains under de facto house arrest in Beijing.