The US State Department on Wednesday urged China to let a human rights lawyer travel after he said he was prevented from flying to the United States for a fellowship.
“We are disturbed by reports that Chinese authorities prevented prominent human rights lawyer Chen Jiangang from leaving China to participate in a State Department-sponsored exchange program,” said the department’s spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus.
“We urge China to respect Chen’s freedom of movement and to view lawyers and rights defenders as partners in strengthening Chinese society through development of rule of law,” she tweeted.
Chen had been selected to study English as part of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship, a program named for the late vice president that provides a year of US education for emerging leaders around the world.
The lawyer said he was ready to board a flight to Seattle on April 1 when he was pulled aside by customs at Beijing Capital airport and told he was banned from leaving China.
— Morgan Ortagus (@statedeptspox) April 10, 2019
“This persecution of lawyers and disregard for the rule of law once again shows to the world that the Chinese government is openly and unceasingly depriving people of their human rights,” he said in a statement.
“Nothing stops the Chinese government from doing whatever it wants to, disregarding any law or commitment it makes,” he said.
Chen had represented Xie Yang, himself a leading lawyer in politically sensitive causes such as defending Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, who was rounded up in a sweeping crackdown on legal staff in 2015.
Chen remained vocal on the case even after authorities removed him as Xie’s lawyer, including drawing attention to his former client’s allegations of torture in police custody.
Exit bans are a common way for China to try to curb the activities of figures it sees as disturbing the communist system.
In a 2017 incident criticized by the United Nations human rights office, Chen was stopped while vacationing with his family in remote Yunnan province.
His wife and young children were allowed to fly back to Beijing, but Chen said he was taken back on the 3,200-kilometer (2,000-mile) journey by road under police escort.