Human rights advocate faces trial in China on eve of UN review

The New York Times reported yesterday that human rights activist Huang Qi was charged with illegal possession of state secrets. Huang was detained by plainclothes police last June after assisting the families of five primary school students who died in the earthquake in Sichuan, China last May. (The families believe local authorities are responsible for the poor construction of public buildings that collapsed and Huang was going to help them to bring a lawsuit.)

Huang Qi is considered the first webmaster in China to be sent to prison. In 1998, he set up the website to help family members locate missing relatives who disappeared after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest. The website later included content about the plights of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang and the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Huang was detained, charged with “incitement of subversion”, tried in secret in August 2001 and imprisoned until June 2005. According to the court verdict, the prosecution’s evidence included reference to Huang’s posting of the Amnesty International report, The People’s Republic of China: Tiananmen – Eleven Years on (May 2000).

Huang Qi was not deterred by his time in prison – he returned to human rights advocacy after his release in 2005. But, this time around, his freedom was taken away before he could bring justice to the families who lost their children in the earthquake.

Internet censorship has become an all-too-common tool for government authorities to stop dissent and punish dissenters. China is about to face its first Universal Periodic Review by the United Nations Human Rights Council next Monday. The Council should be diligent in clearly documenting cases of suppression of dissent, like that of Huang Qi, in assessing China’s record on freedom of expression.