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Home / World / China is using the coronavirus as a cover to detain dissidents, activists say

China is using the coronavirus as a cover to detain dissidents, activists say



On the day of his release from prison, Wang Kwangjiang, one of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers, believed he was finally free.

After being held for nearly five years on charges of undermining state power, Mr. Wang escorted police to an apartment building in the eastern city of Jinan. There he was given a room with iron bars on the windows. Twenty policemen stood guard. His mobile phone was confiscated and his use was later restricted and monitored.

Mr. Wang was in fact under temporary house arrest, but the authorities had another name: quarantine.

Human rights activists say the coronavirus has given Chinese authorities a new reason to detain dissidents. The final quarantines, which are often imposed immediately after detainees such as Mr. Wang have cleared the previous one, are the last way to silence dissent, part of a broader campaign led by China’s Xi Jinping to curb activism through arrests, detentions and tougher online control, activists say.

Before the pandemic, China had already prepared an intense fight against human rights, which many activists considered the most aggressive since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Quarantine activists are often detained without the knowledge of their families. They are usually “forbidden to communicate with the outside world, keep them in a secret place and not allow themselves to be isolated at home,” said Francis Eva, deputy director of human rights research and human rights activist in China.

“This treatment is actually disappearing,” she said.

Although a two-week quarantine is common in Asia for the return of travelers, and prisons have been identified as hotspots for coronavirus transmission, details of Mr Wang’s case suggest that he was not detained solely for health reasons.

When he was forced to undergo a two-week quarantine in April, the outbreak in Ginan had already been tamed, and people could move freely around the city and return to work. Mr Wang said he had already tested negative for the virus five times in prison and had completed a 14-day quarantine before his release.

“Now the whole of China is concerned with preventing an epidemic,” said Wang, who spent three years in prison before being even charged and was the last of hundreds of human rights lawyers to be tried and convicted after his 2015 arrests.

“Under such a big slogan, personal freedom can be violated and you can’t say anything,” he said.

Yaqiu Wang, a Chinese researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the pandemic had given the government a reason to restrict movement so that it “could justify human rights abuses.”

“These people are clearly not in quarantine,” Ms. Wang said. “It’s not scientifically sound, it’s just an excuse for the government to limit its movements and suppress its speech.”

Ms Eva said her human rights group had recorded nine cases of activists who had recently been released from prison and then quarantined, but added that “there are probably many more”.

Among those forcibly detained in quarantine, the group said it was a citizen journalist who was trying to raise awareness about the initial outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan; five labor rights activists; a fired worker who, in an interview with a foreign news outlet, called on people to take up arms against the ruling Communist Party.

China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to a request for comment.

The Chinese government is not the only one to use the pandemic as an excuse to seize more power, restrict rights or fight dissent. The Indian government gathered and detained critics. President Rodrigo Duterte Philippines recently authorized police to enter people’s homes in search of the sick. And in Hungary, the prime minister can now issue a decree.

Although Chinese law gives the state emergency powers to quarantine people during public health emergencies, several local officials have noted that the practice of quarantining released convicts violates these rules.

In the central province of Hubei, police said prisoners serving prison terms should be released within 24 hours, according to the state-controlled Shanghai Observer.

The newspaper, a news site run by the Shanghai government, quoted Sichuan police officials as saying that prisoners should be released “by law” after a 14-day prison quarantine and a physical examination that includes a nucleic acid test. coronavirus, blood tests and CT.

Jiang Jiawen, 65, a fired worker mentioned by Chinese human rights activists who called for resistance to the Communist Party, was sentenced in March to a year and a half for “picking up quarrels and causing trouble.” In July, he was on his way to meet a friend at Beijing Railway Station when he was laid to rest by state security officials.

They took him to a detention center and interrogated him, Mr Jiang said. They then told him he needed to be quarantined, and they brought him to a hotel in the northern city of Dandong, more than 500 miles away. The room had iron bars on the doors and windows. Two police officers and two government officials were constantly watching the street.

No one took the temperature during the 14-day quarantine, Mr. Jiang said. Officials initially asked him to pay a quarantine of $ 17 a day, he said, but he refused.

“They just want to find a reason to detain us,” Mr Jiang said. “The epidemic gave them good reasons.”

Ding Yajun, a 51-year-old woman protesting the forced demolition of her home, was released from prison on May 11 in Harbin after serving a three-year sentence, also for “picking up quarrels and causing trouble.” When she ended up in prison, officials smeared her throat, tested her for blood, and quarantined her.

However, after her release, Ms. Dean was quarantined again. She was kept in a windowless room for more than a month, which was closed with an iron baton, she said. She was finally released on June 16.

Liu Xiangbin, who spent 10 years in prison for writing articles critical of the Chinese government, was released on June 27 and ordered a 14-day quarantine. But he was allowed to do so at home in the southwestern province of Sichuan, according to his wife, Chen Mingxiang.

“It’s a national policy, and it’s a special circumstance,” Ms. Chen said. “So we support and understand that.”

Mr. Wang, a human rights lawyer, has now returned to Beijing with his family. He says he is monitored periodically, but is not believed to be under 24-hour surveillance because most dissidents have been released from prison.

Recalling his time in quarantine after his release, Mr Wang said police officers often checked on him, even though he was supposed to be in solitary confinement.

“It was absurd,” he said. “The real goal was to shut me down and tell me not to contact friends.”

Liu Yi contributed to the research.


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