Two prominent Chinese human rights defenders are due to stand trial this week after their arrest more than two years ago for participating in an informal civil society summit in Xiamen in late 2019.
Legal scholar Xu Zhiyong will stand trial on Wednesday followed by lawyer Ding Jiaxi on Thursday on “charges of subverting state power,” according to Amnesty International.
The two men are the latest participants in the Xiamen summit to be brought to court. Since December 2019, Chinese authorities have arrested dozens of summit attendees for taking part in discussions on current affairs and civil society issues, highlighting the shrinking space for even the mildest expression of dissent in China.
Their arrest also follows a broader crackdown on human rights defenders that began in 2015 under President Xi Jinping.
Amnesty International’s China campaigner Gwen Lee said the pair were standing trial “not because they committed any internationally recognised crime, but simply because they hold views the government does not like”.
Xu and Ding are well-known figures in China, where Xu founded the New Citizens’ Movement in 2012 to focus on issues like corruption and government transparency. Ding was also a prominent member of the group in the past.
They have also both been jailed previously for their work. Xu was imprisoned for four years in January 2014 for his work on behalf of the children of migrant workers while Ding served three and a half years during the same period for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order”, according to Amnesty.
Since their arrests in late 2019 and early 2020, the men spent a year – double the legal limit – in “residential surveillance at a designated location”.The procedure is used to hold prisoners without charge and is considered a form of “forced disappearance” by rights groups.
During their time in detention, Xu and Ding were reportedly denied access to their lawyers and interrogated while strapped to a “tiger chair,” a device that restricts limb movement.
In China, human rights advocates like Xu and Ding are at most risk of rights violations like arbitrary arrest, forced disappearance, and torture and ill-treatment, according to a new human rights index released on Wednesday by the Human Rights Measurement Initiative (HRMI).
The HRMI index offers composite scores for issues like rights to housing or education, and for 40 countries including China, civil and political rights. China scored 2.8 out of 10 on a metric measuring “safety from the state” based on 2021 surveys with respondents inside and outside the country.
Survey results also showed that torture and ill-treatment by government agents was widespread, said Thalia Kehoe Rowden, Strategy and Communication Lead at HRMI, with political dissidents and ethnic minorities including Uighurs most at risk.
“Human rights advocates, people protesting, people with particular political beliefs, workers’ rights advocates, they were among the most commonly identified to be at risk for torture, for forced disappearance, and for arbitrary arrest,” Kehoe Rwoden told Al Jazeera.
The risk of being placed in RSDL also came up repeatedly during interviews, she said.
HRMI also found that punishment often extends beyond prison time and into the personal lives of political dissidents and their families.
“Expression of opinions not approved by the Communist Party can lead to denial of healthcare, refusal of housing, and loss of employment – not just for dissidents themselves, but for their families. Lives can be – and are – ruined in China for daring to speak out,” said HRMI civil and political rights lead researcher Matt Rains.