China releases rights activist

Ananth Krishnan

BEIJING: Chinese authorities on Sunday unexpectedly released on bail the well-known human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong, a move seen by scholars and activists in Beijing as a rare victory for public activism.

Mr. Xu, who was arrested outside his home on July 29, is known in China for taking on sensitive human rights cases. He had been accused of tax evasion and kept in detention since July 29. His arrest was seen by many activists here as part of a wider crackdown launched by authorities on non-governmental organisations in the lead-up to the People’s Republic of China’s sixtieth anniversary on October 1.

Mr. Xu, whose detention has attracted international attention, was unexpectedly granted bail on Sunday. As the granting of bail is usually rare in such cases in China, Mr. Xu’s release most likely received sanction from higher authorities.

Mr. Xu founded a legal aid group called Gongmeng, or the Open Constitution Initiative, which has taken on sensitive legal cases in China. The organisation first came to prominence in 2003 when it took up the case of Sun Zhigang, a 27-year-old graduate student who was beaten to death in a Guangzhou detention centre after being picked up for not having the right identification papers. This case received a lot of attention in China, and in its aftermath the government amended custody laws.

Most recently, Gongmeng took up the cases of the victims of milk poisoning. Last year, more then 3 lakh children were sickened after consuming milk tainted with the chemical melamine. Gongmeng is currently representing the parents of victims who are seeking compensation.

But work at the centre has come to a standstill since its Beijing offices were raided last month on tax evasion charges. Authorities said the centre was not properly registered as an NGO, and fined the group 1.4 million Yuan. But human rights activists said the timing of the move suggested a wider crackdown on NGOs which handle sensitive issues in anticipation of the politically significant anniversary on October 1.

“The organisation’s activists say they now hope they can carry on with their work representing the parents of those affected by the milk powder scandal. After Mr. Xu’s arrest, we have not been able to operate normally,” Tian Qizhuang, Gongmeng’s executive director, told The Hindu. “This case has taken up all our energies.”

Mr. Tian said the organisation had on August 10 tried to pay the tax bureau the outstanding charges, but the payment was refused as officials said they needed the signature of Mr. Xu, who was then being held in detention.

Mr. Tian said it was “impossible” for organisations like Gongmeng to register themselves with the government as NGOs as doing so required sanction from government authorities. Consequently, he said, the group’s legal aid centre was functioning under the umbrella of the privately owned Gongmeng group.

The larger fate of Mr. Xu and his organisation is still unresolved.

Mr. Xu still faces trial. It is also unclear if there were any conditions he had to agree to secure his release, and if Gongmeng will continue taking on the kinds of sensitive cases it has in the past.

For now though, Mr. Xu’s release is seen by activists and scholars in Beijing as a rare victory for public activism.

“His release is a victory for all those who seek to promote public interest,” Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor of law at Renmin University in Beijing told the Global Times newspaper. “It’s a huge step of progress for promoting the rule of law in the country.”

(Bao BeiBei contributed to reporting.)