This Human Rights Lawyer Faces Life In Prison—For Doing Her Job

Photo: Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo.
Update: After six months of detention, human rights lawyer Wang Yu has been formally arrested. According to the Associated Press, Wang's mother received an official arrest notice, which charges Wang with state subversion. Charges of state subversion could lead to life in prison. "[This] is an attempt to strangle the burgeoning human rights lawyers community, and by extension, the wider civil society," Maya Wong of Human Rights Watch told the AP. Wang is one of several lawyers who were detained in July. Since then, her lawyer has been unable to meet with her client.
This story was originally published on September 23, 2015.
This is what we know happened on July 9, 2015: At 3 a.m., 44-year-old human-rights lawyer Wang Yu texted some friends, saying that people were breaking into her home in Beijing. Her electricity and Internet were cut off. Soon after, Wang, her husband, and her 16-year-old son went missing.
Wang is one of 225 lawyers and activists who have been detained by the Chinese government since July 5, Amnesty International reports. She is also one of 20 imprisoned women representing silenced female voices around the world in the United States Mission to the United Nations' #FreeThe20 campaign. Leading up to the Beijing+20 conference, where heads of state from all around the globe will recommit themselves to improving women’s rights worldwide, this campaign is meant to confront many of the delegates with the names and faces of the women who are being unjustly held in their countries. “We are here to launch a campaign to recognize 20 of those women," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said earlier this month at a press conference. "[These women] should be advocating for women’s empowerment and part of the discussions around the [Beijing +20] Conference in New York in three weeks, rather than being behind bars."
Wang was the first of the 20 women named in the campaign (and was featured prominently in the windows of the U.S. mission to the United Nations). As a lawyer, she took on high-profile human-rights cases, representing prominent and controversial scholars, activists, and, most notably, the “Feminist Five,” who planned a protest against sexual harassment and were detained for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” the Economist reported. "It’s very important that people understand what she was doing," Amnesty International researcher William Nee told Refinery29. "She was taking on cases about the rapes of ethnic minorities, religious-persecution cases, women's-rights cases. In China, lawyers who are taking on those cases are at severe risk of persecution."

They don’t know that Chinese people are like animals and don’t have any basic rights.

Wang Yu, lawyer and activist
But let's be clear: Wang started off as a commercial lawyer. What turned her into an activist was her own run-in with the government. In 2008, railway-station employees refused to allow Wang to board a train, even though she had a ticket. Several men assaulted her; Wang was then sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for “intentional assault,” despite the fact that she was the victim in this situation.
“Many people think about China — China is rich, China is developing quickly,” Wang said in a 2013 interview for the upcoming documentary The Road From Hainan. “They don’t know that Chinese people are like animals and don’t have any basic rights.” The Road From Hainan tracks Wang's work in a 2013 sexual-assault case in the Chinese city of Hainan, where the lawyer helped represent the families of six young girls, ages 11 to 14, who were taken to a hotel room by their school president and a government official and allegedly sexually abused. The families were threatened by the government and told to keep quiet; Wang refused.
"[Wang] was doing a series of high-profile cases, many of which the government did not like whatsoever," Nee says. "Eventually, the state-run press put out an article vilifying her in June, which is ominous. And there was a crackdown."
Wang and her husband remain in custody under "residential surveillance"; their son has reportedly been released, but cannot leave the country. But the whereabouts of Wang and her husband are unknown — residential surveillance is notoriously secretive (it was the topic of Ai Weiwei's powerful piece "S.A.C.R.E.D.," produced after he was detained for 81 days in an unknown location). "In residential surveillance, there is really no way to know what is happening," Nee says. "At least in a detention facility, you have your fellow detainees, you have family visits, word will leak out if something is wrong. [In residential surveillance], the police can basically do anything." Nee notes that there have been cases in the past where people held in this secretive limbo were subject to 22-hour interrogations and torture. Typically, people put under residential surveillance are being charged with terrorism, endangering state security, or serious bribery. Wang, Nee says, is being charged with "inciting subversion of state power."

“Everyone says human-rights law is a high-risk career."

Wang Yu, lawyer and activist
“Everyone says human-rights law is a high-risk career,” Wang said in a segment of the documentary published by the Guardian. “One might disappear, be sent to a mental hospital or detention center. This could happen at any time.”
It happened on July 9; it's happened to many others since. And it's those voices that Power wants to include in the conversation about advancing women's rights — and, subsequently, all human rights. "[These] women…have worked to promote freedom of expression and assembly; to ensure people’s right to basic health care and education; and to defend children, refugees, and other vulnerable members of our societies," she said at the #FreeThe20 press conference. “To the governments imprisoning these 20 individuals, we urge: If you want to empower women, start by releasing these women."

"If you want to empower women, start by releasing these women."

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power
Power is not alone in championing this cause. Yesterday, Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced a bipartisan resolution in support of #FreeThe20, bringing together all 20 of the women currently serving in the Senate. They issued a joint statement explaining the importance of the resolution — and the need to empower and liberate these women, and the many others like them: "As 20 women serving in the United States Senate we stand unified in calling on governments to recognize the universal human rights of women and to release women who have been imprisoned unjustly for exercising those rights. Our message is simple — world leaders and foreign governments, including those attending the U.N.-hosted meeting this month, should empower women, not imprison them." These stories are not just about women. In Wang Yu's case, she represents the activists and the minorities in China, the communities that want to create change. "In China, these lawyers are really the leaders of different social movements," Nee says. "The law may say things in theory, but in practice it's another story. So ethnic minorities, feminists, religious minorities, all of these people rely on lawyers to help them in legal battles, but there aren’t a lot of human-rights lawyers. It’s very important that the world step up and defend this community." To show your support of these women — and many others who have been unjustly imprisoned — use the #FreeThe20 hashtag to make your voice, and theirs, heard.

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