China continues moves against activists, barring 2 lawyers from leaving country

Imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for "his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights", a prize likely to enrage the Chinese government.
By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 11:29 PM

IN BEIJING Police prevented two prominent human rights lawyers from leaving China on Tuesday, the latest in a series of recent moves against activists and dissidents that underscores the contradiction between the country's professed commitment to the rule of law and the legal gray area in which its security apparatus sometimes operates.

"This kind of restriction of the freedom of person has absolutely no legal basis," said Mo Shaoping, one of the lawyers who was not permitted to board a flight to attend an International Bar Association conference in London. When asked why, the police could produce no written notice, the lawyers said, but offered only that the two might "threaten national security" if allowed to travel abroad.

Over the past month, since jailed pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a handful of lawyers and dissidents - and Liu's wife, Liu Xia - have been subjected to a form of house arrest, prohibited from leaving their apartments or meeting with journalists. Some, like the two lawyers, have been prevented from traveling, as the government fears Liu Xiaobo's supporters might try to attend the Dec. 10 Nobel ceremony in Oslo. But Mo, who said he had already checked his luggage when police detained him, said he had a return ticket and no intention of going to Norway.

China - increasingly open, modern and economically powerful - wants to be seen as a country that abides by the rule of law, with an independent judiciary.

The official state-run news agency reported Tuesday that China's State Council - the equivalent of the cabinet - had issued new guidelines ordering officials to adhere to the rule of law. It is "important" and "imperative" to build a government ruled by law, the State Council said.

According to China's constitution, people can be arrested only on orders of a public prosecutor or court, and arrests must be made public. "Unlawful detention or deprivation or restriction of citizens' freedom by other means is prohibited," the constitution states.

But while officials publicly extol the rule of law, the police and security forces continue to act under their own rules. The security apparatus detains people it considers "troublemakers," restricting them to their homes, or, in the worst cases, causing them to disappear for weeks or months into "black jails," as secret detention centers are known.

Under Chinese law, people suspected of a crime can be held for a maximum of 37 days, during which time the public prosecutor must issue a warrant. But the reality is often far different.

One lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, has been missing since April. He had just been released from police custody, and it is believed he was picked up again by police. Another lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, said he was detained in a hotel room for three days, just after the Nobel Prize was announced on Oct. 8. Ding Zilin, whose son died in the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square and who has become an activist for relatives of Tiananmen victims, has disappeared along with her husband and is thought to be in a black jail.

Last weekend, the prominent artist and outspoken dissident Ai Wei Wei was placed under house arrest in Beijing, to prevent him from traveling to Shanghai. He had planned to hold a large banquet to protest the Shanghai government's plans to demolish his art studio there. He planned to serve river crabs, because the name in Chinese, "he xie," sounds similar to the Chinese word for "harmony," often invoked by the country's leaders who say they want a "harmonious society."

Asked about the house arrests and the stipulations in the constitution guaranteeing personal freedom, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in an e-mail: "I do not know the individuals you mention. The Chinese Constitution and laws protect the legitimate rights of Chinese citizens. Meanwhile, Chinese citizens should abide by the constitution and laws."

Placing dissidents and others under house arrest - also known here as "soft detention" - is common in China, particularly during big events such as the 2008 Summer Olympics or major meetings of the Communist Party.

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