(As posted on Huffington Post)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s trip to China is understandably engaged with Canada-China trade relations, investments, and — in particular — the hope to build closer economic ties with Canada’s number two trading partner.
As well, on the eve of his trip, a senior government official was quoted as saying that the Prime Minister will raise China’s human rights record during his discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Indeed, the time is propitious for raising such issues as the Chinese President himself recently expressed his commitments to the rule of law, constitutionalism, and China’s international legal obligations.
Accordingly, an All-Party Press Conference this week — also on the eve of the Prime Minister’s trip — called for the release of imprisoned Chinese prisoners of conscience Dr. Wang Bingzhang and Dr. Liu Xiaobo – for whom I am acting as pro bono legal counsel – and which cases are a litmus test of President Xi Jinping’s stated undertakings.
Dr. Wang is the founder of the China Democracy movement with a close Canadian connection. He obtained his PhD from McGill University in 1982; both his parents — who died without being able to see him — and his siblings are Canadian citizens; and his daughter Ti-Anna — who inspired the novel Nine Days by Washington Post editor Fred Hiatt and is named after Tiananmen Square — is also a Canadian citizen currently studying law at McGill University while working for her father’s freedom.
Dr. Wang was illegally abducted from Vietnam nearly 12 years ago, was convicted of trumped-up charges following a secret one-day trial at which he was denied the right to speak, and the right counsel, and was sentenced to life imprisonment in solitary confinement. Indeed, his prolonged and abusive solitary confinement — treatment found to constitute torture by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment — has caused him to suffer several debilitating strokes and other severe physical and mental disabilities in prison. Tragically, his daughter Ti-Anna, despite repeated requests, has not been permitted to visit him these past five years.
As well, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found as early as 2003 that Dr. Wang’s prosecution and punishment violate international law standards. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development also tabled a report calling on the Chinese government to release Dr. Wang, as has the U.S. Congress.
The Canadian lawyer Clive Ansley practiced in Shanghai for 13 years. He explains the reality of what happened to Dr. Wang, Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, lawyer Gao Zhisheng and so many other dissidents: “There is a current saying amongst Chines lawyers and judges who truly believe in the Rule of Law . . . ‘Those who hear the case do not make the judgment; those who make the judgment have not heard the case’ . . . Nothing which has transpired in the ‘courtroom’ has any impact on the ‘judgment'”.
Dr. Liu Xiaobo is an internationally renowned scholar and human rights advocate and the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his extraordinary contributions to the rule of law and the protection of human rights. His role in drafting Charter 08, which called for political reform and improved human rights in China, led to his ongoing unjust and illegal detention. Indeed, Dr. Liu was sentenced on Dec. 25, 2009 to eleven years imprisonment on charges of “incitement to subvert state power and overthrow the socialist system” following a trial that violated every norm of due process in Chinese constitutional law as well as its international treaty obligations.
Dr. Liu’s continuing detention — and the Kafkaesque house arrest of his wife Liu Xia who has never been formally accused of any crime — is emblematic of the Chinese government’s increasing suppression of the freedom of expression of its citizens, particularly those who advocate for political reform. The charge of subversion under Article 105 of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China is regularly used to unjustly imprison dissidents, in violation of the Chinese constitution and international law.
And so, 25 years after Tiananmen Square, heroes of democracy and justice — like Dr. Wang and Dr. Liu — see their rights, and the rights of their loved ones, trampled upon because they spoke out for what is right.
In a word, Dr. Wang’s and Dr. Liu’s continuing detentions are case studies of the Chinese government’s massive repression of human rights defenders and violations of their own undertakings to us to respect their domestic and international legal obligations. Regrettably, the Chinese government has succeeded in having the narrative focus on the regime’s openness to trade, technology, and business, and away from justice, democracy, and human rights. It is our responsibility to join the issues, and to hold China to all of its commitments — constitutionalism as well as trade, human rights as well as business, justice as well as investment. The release of Dr. Wang and Dr. Liu would be a start.
Irwin Cotler is MP for Mount Royal and Liberal Critic for Rights and Freedoms and International Justice. He serves as pro bono counsel to Dr. Wang Bingzhang — a member of the international legal team for Dr. Liu Xiaobo — and is a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.