06 May 2020

Where is Chinese rights lawyer Yu Wensheng?

“I am so proud of you and I’ve always believed in you. Please take care of your health. I will take good care of your parents and our son. We are all waiting for you to come home.”

Xu Yan to her husband, the human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng

Update: After almost two and a half years of being disappeared, news emerges that human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng was sentenced to four years in mid-June. His wife Xu Yan says she was informed by the Procuratorate only after the sentencing. She had had no word beforehand.

This Saturday, the 9th of May, it will be one year since Chinese human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng (余文生) was tried in secret. His case was so secret it’s not even listed on the court’s (Xuzhou Municipal Intermediate Court’s) website. It's so secret that his wife, Xu Yan (许艳), was only told about it verbally, she has never received any written notice. It's so secret that even the verdict has not been announced. It’s so secret that Yu’s location remains unknown to this day.

Yu was disappeared by police in Beijing on 19 January 2018, while he was taking his son to school.  Shortly after, he was placed into Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL) – a type of incommunicado detention with a high risk of torture - more than 700km from his Beijing home in Xuzhou on the eastern coast. Despite desperate appeals, travelling to and from Beijing and Xuzhou, and multiple efforts by Xu and her lawyers, they were never allowed to meet with Yu. The sole contact Xu has had with her husband throughout this entire time was a 5-minute video call in April 2018, the day he was formally arrested on suspicion of inciting state subversion, an absurd crime typically pinned on rights defenders.

For background on Yu Wensheng see <here> and for a timeline of his disappearance see <here>.

To mark the one-year anniversary of Yu’s mystery trial and to keep attention on his case, we are publishing a short interview with Xu Yan.

SD: When you asked the authorities for information on your husband’s trial and situation, what did they say?

XY: When I went with the lawyers in person to ask, we were not even allowed past the gate. We were not allowed to meet with anyone who was handling the case. We got no response. I also tried to find out information by writing, but also got no response. On 25 December 2019, I went with two lawyers to Xuzhou Intermediate Court for the fifth time to ask for information on Yu’s case. Then, a judge named Liu Mingwei (刘明伟) who was handling the case, said the verdict was not out yet. We asked him to provide a written notice on the legal procedure but he did not.

SD: This has been extremely stressful for you and your son. How have you and your family coped?

XY: It’s been extremely difficult. The days pass so slowly, they are like years. We are suffering both mentally and physically. Most importantly, we can’t stop worrying about Yu. Whether his health is OK, whether he would get a heavy sentence, and whether they will keep holding him and we’ll never be able to see him.

SD: If you could speak to your husband now, what would you like to say to him?

XY: I am so proud of you and I’ve always believed in you. Please take care of your health. I will take good care of your parents and our son. We are all waiting for you to come home.

SD: Can you talk a bit more about what you’ve been through?

XY: I’d like people to understand that Yu’s situation is very serious and that he has been cruelly persecuted.

In the beginning, the police also summoned me and accused me of inciting subversion. This is far beyond the normal persecution meted out to a family member of a rights defender.

They have blocked any searches of my husband’s name on the Chinese Internet. It’s like he never existed. This level of censorship on a person is rare. You can search at least some information on all the other lawyers caught up in the 709 crackdown, and even some more sensitive names.

In these two and a half year, neither me nor my lawyers have been able to meet with Yu. We still don’t know when the verdict will be released or what will happen to Yu. … This [kind of treatment] is illegal and inhumane.

SD: Lawyer Wang Quanzhang said that international attention had helped in his case. What message do you have for the international community about your husband?

XY: International attention is very important. And I hope that:

  • International organizations who reported the case to the UN in the past, continue to submit reports on Yu’s case to the UN, request the UN and its officials to pay attention to Yu’s situation and urge the Chinese government to immediately make public the verdict or release him.
  • International human rights organizations and lawyer associations could file a joint letter on Yu’s case, to pressure the Chinese government and encourage a conclusion on his case.
  • The international community could consider giving an award to Yu as acknowledgment and support for his human rights work, and also as protection and encouragement for Yu and others in difficult situations.


Who is Yu Wensheng?

Before he was disappeared, Yu had taken on many sensitive cases including defending fellow rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, representing parents of children who had been given faulty vaccines and suing the Beijing government for not controlling air pollution. In 2017, just a few months before he was seized he had written an open letter calling for the resignation of Xi Jinping.

Media tend not to publish stories about people who remain disappeared. There is, after all, nothing new to report. But, as in the case of lawyer Wang Quanzhang, who was finally reunited with his family in April after almost five years of being effectively disappeared, international pressure does help.

Many lawyers have tried to represent Yu but were refused access by the authorities. Just before he was arrested in April 2018, the police said Yu had fired the two lawyers, Xie Yang and Chang Boyang, Xu had hired to help. Police even refused them access to Yu to confirm that it was his free choice to do so  It was at this point that a pre-recorded video (from before he was disapeared) was released in which Yu declared he would have to be tortured in order to accept a state-appointed lawyer.


Timeline of Disappearance

19 January 2018

Yu is detained while taking his son to school. No written notice is given to Xu Yan about his detention until 27 January.

27 January 2018

Xu receives a written notice that Yu is being held on charges of inciting state subversion and is being transferred to Xuzhou (more than 700km away) and would be held under RSDL there at an unknown location.

19 April 2018

Yu is formally arrested and transferred to a detention centre in Xuzhou. He is allowed a 5-min video call with Xu Yan. She says he looked thinner and unkempt. An official notice of that detention is sent to Xu .

9 May 2019

Xu receives no official notice, but is told by a ‘source’ that Xuzhou Municipal Intermediate Court has secretly tried Yu. The case is not listed on the court’s web page.  Until now there is no news of Yu, not even the verdict of his secret trial has been released.

Yu has simply disappeared.