China’s Nobel nominee lawyer released after three years

Zhisheng released, but Chinese Christian lawyers still at risk

Prominent defender of persecuted Christians, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Gao Zhisheng was released from prison last week after his most recent three year sentence. But doubt remains over whether he will be allowed to leave the country to be with his family in the US.

Zhisheng, 50, is a Christian lay leader as well as a Beijing-based lawyer. He came to prominence for defending activists and religious minorities before Chinese authorities closed down his law practice in 2005, and arrested him for ‘subversion’ a year later, a charge that is often used by China against government critics.

After years of disappearance and torture, Zhisheng was finally released from the remote Shaya Prison in Xinjiang, western China on 7 August and went home to relatives, saying his teeth were so loose he could not eat. His latest conviction was for ‘inciting to subvert state power’. A Washington DC-based group called Freedom Now, which campaigns for prisoners of conscience, says that he had been held in solitary confinement for the whole three years, in a small cell, with minimal light. It said he was fed a single slice of bread and piece of cabbage once a day and had lost roughly 22.5 kg (50 lbs). It also reports he had no access to books, and says “He can barely talk — and only in very short sentences — most of the time he mutters and is unintelligible. It is believed he is now suffering from a broad range of physical and mental health problems; he has not been allowed to see a doctor since his release”.

His wife and two children escaped China five years ago to live in the United States, but he would have to be released with unconditional freedom to be able to join them.

Other high-profile activists, says Human Rights Watch, are subjected to ongoing restrictions such as house arrest after their release from prison. That China is accusing its human rights lawyers of subversion, it also says, is a clear indication of a battle for values and individual freedoms that is raging in the country.

Zhisheng, once celebrated by China as one of its top ten lawyers, is now an ex-convict barred from practising the law and talking to the media as one of China’s highest profile dissidents.

But he is just one among many human rights lawyers and activists who have been arrested, ‘disappeared’ and who claim to have been tortured in efforts to intimidate them.

In 2001, Zhisheng was named as one of China’s top-ten lawyers by the Ministry of Justice. But that was before he began to champion the rights of the poor and publicly criticise China for religious persecution and the abuse of human rights.

From December 2004, he wrote three open letters to China’s leaders, calling for an end to the persecution of those who practise Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline derived from Buddhist tradition, generally regarded as a cult movement. The practice, which was introduced to China in 1992, attracted many followers who called on Beijing for its recognition. The authorities saw it as a threat similar to unregistered Christian churches, and clamped down on the movement. As a Christian, he saw its members as unjustly treated, as too are other Chinese minorities.

The common thread is the perceived threat to the supreme authority of the Communist Party, by those who reject atheism and claim to serve a higher spiritual purpose. If pushed, they refuse to come under state regulation and control.

China remains a totalitarian nation, whose ruling Communist Party still holds absolute power. Human rights activists and others who publicly oppose the government may be subjected to discrimination, arrest and even (long-term) imprisonment.

Gao Zhisheng: from star lawyer to ’inciting to subvert the state power’

In November 2005, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice shut down Zhisheng’s

Shengzhi Law Firm in Beijing. They revoked his licence and found him guilty in 2006 of ‘inciting to subvert the state power’. He was given a suspended sentence, but continued to campaign for religious freedoms and human rights.

After being arrested again in 2007, he published an article claiming he had been tortured under interrogation for 50 days.

He claimed he had been followed by secret police, knocked to the ground, hooded and abducted. In the article published worldwide, he wrote: ‘The electric shock batons were thrust all over me. And my full body, my heart, lungs and muscles began jumping under my skin uncontrollably. I was writhing on the ground in pain, trying to crawl away. Wang [his interrogator] then electrocuted my genitals.’

According to Zhisheng, his interrogators accused him of sexual immorality and of writing to the US Congress. Zhisheng says they tortured him to confess using techniques they had practiced on the Falun Gong. ‘They used toothpicks to pierce my genitals. I can’t use any language to describe the helplessness, pain, and despair that I felt then.’

Eventually Zhisheng broke and wrote a letter to the US Congress saying he had been treated well and had been duped by the Falun Gong. But he later recanted and documented his alleged torture in the article, Dark Night, Dark Hood and Kidnapping by Dark Mafia.

In February 2009, Gao Zhisheng was again arrested at his home in front of his family.

It was only in March 2011 that state media announced he’d been jailed for three years.

Zhisheng is now said to be staying at his father-in-law’s home in Urumqi. But when his wife, Geng He, spoke to him on the phone she could tell security officers were with him, according to the US-based Chinese American Christian pastor and human rights campaigner, Bob Fu.

‘Zhisheng is still far away from true freedom,’ says Fu, a former Tiananmen protester and refugee, who now runs China Aid. Another Beijing-based human rights activist, Hu Jia, told reporters: ‘Zhisheng will not be given real freedom. The Communist Party worries Zhisheng will become a leading rights defender, so the restrictions on him will be long-term.’ Hu told Radio Free Asia that security police have forbidden Zhisheng from speaking to the media.

Zhisheng is expected to seek asylum in the US.

Prominent human rights lawyers subject to frequent arrest and harassment

Amnesty International has accused China of clamping down on lawyers involved in cases critical of the Chinese authorities. In its report Against the law – Crackdown on China’s Human Rights Lawyers Deepens Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Deputy Director, Catherine Baber says:

‘Human rights lawyers are subject to escalating silencing tactics – from suspension or revoking of licences, to harassment, enforced disappearance or even torture’. This happened to Zhisheng.

Liberty groups say the clampdown against lawyers intensified in the months after the Arab Spring revolutions, when China began to fear a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ of its own. Many were rounded up. Many claim to have been tortured in efforts to intimidate them.

Amnesty claims that intimidation is working, and few are now willing to defend victims of religious persecution, including Christian and Tibetan activists, the banned Falun Gong, and Muslim Uighurs.

According to the pro-democracy pressure group Chinese Human Rights Defenders, there have been upwards of 1,600 cases since 2012 of Chinese human rights activists ‘detained for at least five days, and in some cases tortured or mistreated.’

In March, for instance, four human rights lawyers were arrested after investigating alleged abuses at a so-called ‘Legal Education Centre’ in Heilongjiang province. Chinese Human Rights Defenders claim there are 449 such detention centres in China, which it describes as ‘brainwash centres and black jails’ used to ‘re-educate’ dissidents.

The four lawyers investigating the Centre also claim to have been unlawfully detained and tortured. They include the prominent Christian advocate Jiang Tianyong, who was held for 15 days accused of ‘utilising cult activities to harm society’.

Interviewed recently in Beijing he said: ‘As a human being, I am definitely afraid of such torture, they want to fill our hearts with terror and fear, but that cannot stop us doing the right thing – the pursuit of justice.’ He broke down during the interview and had to recover his composure. Days later, he was arrested.

Some of China’s human rights lawyers, such as Zhisheng and Jiang Tianyong, are professing Christians. And in the eyes of the state that means they owe their first allegiance to an authority that is higher than the ruling Communist Party.

‘In their eyes we are the enemy’, another Christian human rights lawyer Zhang Kai explained. ‘Our core values are different. They are atheists and we worship God. An authoritarian state is naturally against freedom.’

But in cracking down on lawyers who defend personal human freedoms, the Chinese authorities are seen as simply proving the lawyers’ case – that there is a fundamental lack of individual human rights.

Talk of individual freedoms runs counter to the state’s authoritarian, atheist and collective approach. How China is treating her lawyers is a clear indication that her leaders continue to view the authority of the state and the party as paramount over every Chinese citizen.

A recent World Watch Monitor report showed that lawyers can be on the receiving end of physical violence, apparently from government-hired aggressors. The lawyers had been hired to defend a group of detained Christian church leaders. When the lawyers demanded access to their clients, a group of about 100 plain-clothed officials appeared and began to threaten and abuse the lawyers. The attack was filmed and broadcast around the world because of the presence of a television crew from Sky News.

*****************

©2014 World Watch Monitor

Qaraqosh Falls Thousands Flee-President Obama Orders Air Strikes

Iraq_map_top

Qaraqosh falls, thousands flee

Armed jihadists of the so-called “Islamic State” took over Iraq’s largest Christian town, Qaraqosh, and nearby Christian settlements early Thursday, forcing thousands of Christians to flee to Kurdish-controlled areas. Statements of anguish and calls for intervention have been issued by Pope Francis and other Christian leaders.

The US President Barack Obama has authorised two operations to prevent genocide in Iraq. One operation is targeted airstrikes to protect US personnel and the other is a humanitarian effort to help the thousands of displaced Iraqi civilians, mostly religious minorities, who have been forced out of their homes by the Islamic State, IS.

In addition to Christians, tens of thousands of ethnic Yazidis have fled to the mountains outside Qaraqosh, where they are surrounded by the Sunni militants and exposed to temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) without access to water or other supplies. The United Nations’ children -relief agency, UNICEF, says at least 40 Yazidi children have died.

As many as a quarter of Iraq’s remaining Christians are reported to be on the run, according to the BBC. Louis Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Iraq, told Agence France-Press the advancing Sunni militants have occupied churches, ripped down crosses and destroyed manuscripts.

The Islamic State, which previously called itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, IS or ISIS, also has captured Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest, after driving off the Peshmerga defense forces of Kurdistan, the autonomous region of northern Iraq.

Qaraqosh, a city of about 50,000 people in Iraq’s Nineveh Province, sits between Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, to the east. The Islamic State took over Mosul in July, and many of the city’s remaining Christians fled eastward to Qaraqosh, sometimes called the Christian capital of Iraq.

Kurdish Peshmerga troops had been pushed back from several points surrounding Mosul during an IS offensive during the weekend, including the town of Sinjar and Zumar, west of Mosul. The BBC reported that the Peshmerga commander in Qaraqosh informed the archbishop late Wednesday that the Kurdish forces would withdraw. There were reports of mortars being fired into Christian towns near the front lines east of Mosul, and Qaraqosh fell during the early hours of Thursday.

“I now know that the towns of Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh have been emptied of their original population and are now under the control of the militants,” Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah, told AFP.

Following the capture of Sinjar and Zumar during the weekend, tens of thousands of residents fled into the hills between the two cities. Many are Yazidi, a Kurdish group with links to Zoroastrianism, and whose beliefs are regarded by some Sunni Muslims as satanic. They have been stuck without food or water.

“Many of the displaced are in immediate need of essential life-saving humanitarian items, including water, food, shelter and medicine,” said UN spokesman David Swanson.

Archbishop Thomas called the situation a “catastrophe.”

“Tens of thousands of terrified people are being displaced as we speak, it cannot be described,” Thomas told AFP.

Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako told AFP said the jihadist advance has touched off a frantic dash for Kurdistan.

“There are 100,000 displaced Christians who have fled with nothing but their clothes, some of them on foot, to reach the Kurdistan region,” AFP quoted him as saying. “This is a humanitarian disaster. The churches are occupied, their crosses were taken down.”

Pope Francis issued an “urgent appeal” to the international community Thursday, asking for a coordinated response “to ensure all necessary assistance — especially the most needed aid — to the great multitude of displaced persons whose fate depends entirely on the solidarity of others.”

In the United States, President Barack Obama is considering airstrikes against IS forces and airdrops of humanitarian supplies to the refugees, the New York Times reported. CNN also reported that a defense department official said “other military options” are under consideration.

France on Thursday called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. The World Council of Churches, as well as Iraq’s Chaldean prelates, Thomas and Sako, issued similar pleas.

“We call on the UN Security Council to immediately intervene. Tens of thousands of terrified people are being displaced as we speak, it cannot be described,” Thomas said.

Said Sako: “Today we appeal with lots of pain and sadness, to all people of good will, the UN Security Council, European Union and relief organisations, to help those people who are facing mortal danger.”

He added: “I hope it is not too late to avoid genocide.”

The sudden collapse of Qaraqosh is the latest of a series of jihadist blows to Iraq’s Christians. Since their offensive began in June, IS has ordered Christians in captured towns to either convert to Islam, pay a tax to remain Christian, or die. In one instance, sources have told World Watch Monitor that militants from Islamic State (IS) beheaded a Christian simply for asking why he was being stopped in the street.

The man was murdered in IS occupied Northern Iraq on Sunday July 27.

The violent incident is just one of many given to World Watch Monitor by sources in Mosul and Erbil, 60 miles east of in the autonomous region of Kurdistan and currently attracting thousands of Christian refugees.

His wife, who was with him at the time of the attack, later told a priest and members of a church in Erbil what happened.

As the Christian couple fled Mosul, the source said, they were stopped for questioning by militants, one of them armed. The woman’s husband repeatedly asked why IS kept detaining Christians. The one with the weapon got angry at this and hit the husband over the head, causing severe bleeding. The injured man screamed in pain from the blow, but this further angered the armed militant who went over to the man , cut off his head and placed the severed head on the man’s stomach.

The man’s wife, by now hysterical and in shock, was bundled into a car by the militants and the driver told to take her away.

Other reports have reached World Watch Monitor that similarly brutal attacks are being made on Christians as they flee Mosul following the ultimatum giving them until 19 July to either convert to Islam, pay a tax or leave.

A woman told World Watch Monitor that her 80-year-old husband, who had also confronted IS members, had his hands and legs cut “Look, you got angry and questioned IS too but you survived. Thank God,” she said.

A third incident was reported by a couple in their 50s who had fled Telkif, 15 miles north of Mosul, and arrived at the church in Erbil. During their escape the man had broken his leg. After visiting the hospital in Erbil he arrived at the church and told its members what had happened.

“We left Mosul on Wednesday (July 23) going to Telkif,” said the man. We didn’t have anywhere to stay so we slept in the street, among the houses. When people saw us there they brought us some food to eat.”

The couple has a son, but, added the woman: “Our son, we sent him to Alqosh.

“But fights started in Telkif,” she continued, “and we jumped out to escape but my husband stumbled and his leg broke in two more places.”

The church members who heard this story told World Watch Monitor they were thankful the couple had made it to Erbil. “They were scared when they told their story, but they need others to listen otherwise they will remain traumatized.”

Sources also report an increase in threatening behaviour, which is frightening Christians and creating a sense of instability. Before the recent Eid, members of IS sent messages to monasteries in the Nineveh Plain saying that “we will celebrate Eid” in your town.

IS has turned St Michael’s monastery into a barn to keep animals. The fourth century building is near the River Tigris.

A young family of five were attempting to flee Mosul when they were stripped of nearly all their possessions, including clothes for their children. The mother said: “They stole our car with everything I had brought for my children – their clothes, a washing machine, food, medicine, jewellery for the girls. I hid my wedding ring in the diaper of my 10-month-old baby but they took my new phone.

“My 80-year-old father in law got angry and demanded they return our things but they said to him: ‘Do not speak or we are going to hurt you’.

ÄS they were taking our car I managed to grab two bags of the girls’ clothes and then we ran away.”

The family have now relocated to Erbil and the mother, who is a graduate Chemist, will try to find work there. They will try to rent a house and place the children in schools, but she is questioning whether even Erbil is safe: “Do you think IS will enter Erbil? Is it safe here because people from Mosul are still afraid?”

As well as valuable items, IS took IDs, marriage certificates and land and property registration documents as Christians were leaving Mosul. They tore up these documents. Sources have also revealed that IS had already stated that any property left empty will become the property of the IS armed group.

Price rises are foreshadowing economic collapse in Mosul. In July blocks of ice were selling at 10,000 Iraqi Dinars (8.5 USD or 5 British pounds at current rates), one litre of car fuel was 2,500 ID. It is feared the supply of goods will become even worse if routes through Kurdistan are cut off. Other services are suffering – electricity is only on for two hours each day, water is not available across the city anymore and medicines are becoming scarce.

Early July sources revealed a scam from estate agents in Baghdad. Christians were receiving letters containing a bullet and a demand saying “leave you crusaders”. The agents were exposed and arrested by Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior. They confessed to wanting to persuade Christians to sell property at a cut price so it could be bought cheap. The agents also confessed to supplying home-owners’ details to militants.

World Watch Monitor has also been told that IS had informed Muslims living near the Holy Spirit Church, east of Mosul, to leave their homes because the church would be bombed. Families were told to leave their houses after Iftar (eating after a Muslim fast) for their own protection. The explosions raised the church building to the ground.

Earlier in July IS had set fire to a room attached to the altar of ‘Noah’s Ark church’, as it was also known because it is designed to look like a ship.

Bishop Faraj Rahho opened Holy Trinity Church in 2005 but he was killed in 2008 after a widely publicized kidnapping. When he was ordained Archbishop of Mosul in 2001 he had responsibility for 20,000 Catholics. Rahho had expressed unease at moves to incorporate Sharia law into the Iraqi constitution. He often led worship in difficult situations and had been threatened before by gunmen. One of the demands made by the kidnappers was that Iraqi Christians form a militia to fight US forces based in Iraq at the time. The Archbishop’s body was found in a shallow grave in March 2008.

On 24 July, many of the Iraqi Christians who had already left Mosul marched in protest from their refugee camp in Ankawa to the UN base in Erbil. The demonstrators braved temperatures of 50 degrees centigrade to demand the UN help protect them against IS militants.

Sahar Mansour, a Chaldean Catholic who fled Mosul in June, told the Catholic News Service that she had heard horrific accounts of violent forced conversions of Christians who were unable to flee Mosul because of ill health or disability.

“I did not imagine that one day I would live like this, without human rights, drinking salty water out of wells, without electricity and a house, in this heat,” she said.

Mansour and her family are among 3,500 Christian families encamped around Ankawa, on the outskirts of Erbil

©2014 World Watch Monitor