The International Day of Enforced Disappearances on Aug. 30 prompted prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Yu Whensheng to issue a call on social media. His message was for the United Nations to include Residential Surveillance at a Designated Site (RSDL), such as forced disappearance and torture.

Yu Wensheng, one of the lawyers who dared to stand up to the Chinese regime on human rights, was accused by the authorities of “inciting the subversion of state power” after defending the constitutional reform. After more than two years without legal representation, he was sentenced to 4 years in prison and deprived of his political rights for three years.

Before the official sentence, Yu had been imprisoned in RSDL for 99 days.

Amnesty International said the court sentenced Yu Wensheng for having distorted and fabricated facts and intervened in sensitive domestic affairs by agreeing to interviews with foreign media. Topics included cases involving Falun Gong, the authorities’ crackdown on lawyers in 2015 (709 crackdown), and an “Open Letter on Proposed Amendments to the Constitution,” Yu wrote in 2018, just before he was detained. That same year his lawyer’s license was revoked.

His wife, Xu Yang, fought tirelessly to get a visiting permit. Finally, she got it three years after his arrest.

After his release, Yu suffered continuous harassment from the authorities in the form of citations, arrests, and prohibitions from leaving his house.

The case managed to capture the attention of human rights defenders.

The Martin Engels Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, awarded him the Martin Engels Prize 2021.

The jury chose him and the others nominated as outstanding human rights defenders “despite many attempts to silence them by their authoritarian governments.”

Previously in 2018, he was honored with the Franco-German Award for Human Rights and Rule of Law.

Legal or illegal?

The 2006 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance Article 2 defines an enforced disappearance as:

“The arrest, detention, kidnapping or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by the refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or the concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which places them outside the protection of the law.”

Safeguard Defenders, an international human rights organization founded by Swedish journalist Peter Dahlin, released a report outlining some types of enforced disappearance tactics used by the Chinese regime, such as:

People “being held in detention centers but registered under false names, kidnapping, abusive administrative detention, mass attacks on ethnic minorities, large-scale incarceration, and residential surveillance at designated locations (RSDL).”

Chinese Criminal Procedure Law says: “When, for a crime suspected of endangering state security, or a crime involving terrorist activities, or a crime involving a significant amount of bribery, residential surveillance of the criminal suspect or defendant may be executed at a designated place of residence.”  

The law also stipulates that relatives of the defendant in the RSDL are told their location within 24 hours. However, the authorities usually refuse to do so, giving rise to abuse and torture.

Peter Dahlin, who was held in one of these secret prisons, also known as “black jails,” told The Sun Online that the prisoners, for a period in most cases of up to 6 months, are beaten, deprived of sleep, and forced to take certain drugs. However, the case is not published in the authorities’ database, so neither the relatives nor the lawyers know where they are.

Repression to silence the truth

On July 9, 2015, a vast operation was deployed in different parts of the country to arrest 300 lawyers and activists linked to the defense of ethnic minorities. For example, defending religious freedom, against government abuses, and other issues related to human rights, in a clear state maneuver to silence any criticism or dissenting voice.

Many of them were put under the RSDL regime.

Yu Wensheng participated in defending some of these lawyers, which brought another charge against him at the time of sentencing.

The kidnapping of practitioners of Falun Gong by the authorities has been common practice since the persecution began in 1999, and testimonies of the horrendous torture techniques used by the police and guards are a constant in these cases.

Yu Wensheng was one of the few lawyers with the courage to represent them legally, as in the case of practitioners Zhou Xiangyang and his wife, Li Shanshan.

Zhou Xiangyang, an engineer for the Tianjin Railway, was illegally arrested for practicing Falun Gong and put into custody in various forced labor centers until he was sentenced to 9 years in prison in 2003.

During his incarceration, he was electrocuted, beaten, deprived of sleep for 30 days, placed in solitary confinement, and forced to eat.

His wife, Li Shanshan, was sent to forced labor and re-education camps for supporting her husband.

Both, after being released, were again kidnapped by the regime and illegally sentenced to seven (Zhou Xiangyang) and six (Li Shanshan) years in prison.

Their case is just one of many examples of how the Chinese state uses designated residential surveillance.

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