After two years’ custody, Chinese human rights lawyer released but not free

Li Heping (right) was released on Tuesday after almost two years in custody. Friends noted that he looked like he had aged 20 years. (Credit: Nicola Macbean/ Twitter)

After almost two years behind bars, prominent Chinese human rights lawyer Li Heping was finally released on Tuesday – “visibly emaciated” and with a suspended sentence handed down in a secret trial. While family and advocates are celebrating his release, their joy is tempered by the government’s watchful presence over Li and all civil society.

Li, now 46, was a devout Christian lawyer known for defending persecuted religious groups, political dissidents, environmental activists and victims of forced land requisitions. For his work, he suffered abductions, beatings and heavy surveillance but also received a number of international awards.

That is until July 2015, when he was caught up in the first wave of President Xi Jinping’s “war on law” along with about 300 other lawyers and activists. The sweeping campaign became known as the “709 crackdown,” because it started on July 9, and all references to it in China are heavily censored by the government.

What followed was an almost two year detention that turned a vibrant man, in his 40s, into someone his friends and supporters described as “emaciated” and “almost unrecognizable.” According to a blog post by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, Li told his wife after his release that he was often chained for days during detention and forcibly drugged.

Finally, at the end of last month, Li stood before a secret trial that his family was not informed of and without an attorney. A court in Tianjin found Li guilty of “subversion of state power” by using foreign funds to “attempt to instigate discontent towards [China’s] social system among some people who do not know the facts,” according to a dispatch by Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China Director.

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The court handed Li a three-year prison sentence with a four-year reprieve – meaning, he will only serve his prison sentence if he gets into any trouble with the law over the next four years. Though the government did not initially announce a release date after his sentencing, they finally let him go on Tuesday.

“Friends and supporters and NGOs and governments and churches have been hoping and praying for this since [he was taken on]July 10, 2015,” Terry Halliday, an American Bar Foundation professor, told the Guardian. “I think this demonstrates how sensitive China’s government is to the unrelenting pressure that has come from all sides.”

However, at the same time, Li’s family and friends are under no illusions that he is actually free.

“He and his family are effectively prisoners for the next four years,” Frances Eve, a researcher at the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, told the New York Times.

Already, Li’s wife Wang Qiaoling, an avid campaigner herself, has noticed that her family is “being followed by six or seven tall, burly men,” she told the Guardian. “They simply follow us wherever we go.”

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Halliday called the conditions “no release by the standards of any rule-of-law country.” The family will be closely surveilled, and Li be isolated from his work, his church and other lawyers.

“While I’m very glad that he is no longer in a formal jail, many of us who watch this … believe that China has substituted the formal jail for an invisible prison in the hope that the optics will be better for international audiences,” he said.

Wang similarly criticized her husband’s sentencing, saying that the state “turned an innocent man into a criminal, and then suspended the sentence so it seems really humanitarian,” according to the Washington Post. “Screw your suspended sentence,” she added.

Meanwhile, another lawyer detained in the 709 crackdown, Xie Yang, was also released on bail this week after incriminating himself in what human rights advocates are calling a “show trial.”

Still, despite outcry from international groups including the U.N. and European Union, many remain in detention with pending charges, and even those who are free fear for their rights and safety so long as civil society is considered as threat to “national security.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.