A group of independent UN rights experts said on Monday they were “gravely concerned” about the welfare of three human rights lawyers “forcibly disappeared” by Chinese authorities shortly after their arrests last December.
Ding Jiaxi, a prominent Beijing-based disbarred lawyer, previously jailed for protesting against official corruption, and lawyers Zhang Zhongshun and Dai Zhenya have been held since late last year in so-called “residential surveillance in a designated location” (RSDL).
That is a form of extrajudicial detention lasting up to six months where detainees are denied access to lawyers and relatives, and are vulnerable to torture and coercion, according to activists.
The three were among more than a dozen lawyers and activists who were detained or went missing in the final days of 2019 in what rights groups have said was a crackdown on participants of a private democracy gathering.
Five UN experts in areas including freedom of opinion and expression, and torture, as well as the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, warned there were “parallels between this recent crackdown and previous attempts to silence dissenting voices in China”.
Nine other lawyers and activists who attended the informal weekend gathering in the city of Xiamen “have also been summoned for questioning or detained in what has been a cross-provincial operation led by a special taskforce of Yantai City police,” the experts pointed out.
The experts, who are appointed by the UN but who do not speak on behalf of the body, expressed alarm at the use of RSDL in China, insisting it constituted a form of enforced disappearance.
“It has also unfortunately become common practice for Chinese authorities to provide limited or conflicting information on the victims and the charges they face,” they said in a statement.
“The families are often kept in the dark about the well-being of their loved ones.”
The experts acknowledged that there are provisions in international law that allow exceptional measures to be taken to protect public order and national security.
But they insisted that “enforced disappearance is a grave and flagrant violation of human rights and is unacceptable in all circumstances”.
“We are dismayed that national security provisions are used to target human rights defenders who meet peacefully and exercise their right to free speech, even if such speech is critical of the state,” they said.
The experts also cautioned that the arrest and detention of the three lawyers could have a “chilling effect” on the defence of human rights in China.
“When the authorities in any country systemically charge human rights defenders with ‘subversion of state power’ or other terror-related charges without clearly communicating the factual basis for such accusations, we worry that these defenders are just being persecuted for the exercise of their most basic human rights,” they said.
Earlier this month, activists revealed that Xu Zhiyong, an outspoken Chinese rights activist who called for President Xi Jinping to step down over the coronavirus outbreak, had been charged with “inciting state subversion” and had been placed in RSDL since mid-February.