Is the U.S. Congress Starting to Get Its Human Rights Mojo Back?

The late U.S. Representative Thomas Lantos

Late last week, Congress reclaimed some of its human rights mojo when the bi-partisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) announced its new Defending Freedoms Project. The TLHRC was established in 1983 by the late Rep. Thomas Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to have served in Congress.

The project kicked off with the TLHRC co-chairmen Frank R. Wolf adopting Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and James P. McGovern taking on the case of jailed Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab.

The goal of this new partnership is to increase respect for religious freedom and other human rights around the world through a focus on individual cases of human rights defenders and those who have been unjustly imprisoned for exercising their human rights. Members of Congress will “adopt” at least one political prisoner, using their clout to highlight each case and push for an end to the human rights violations to which the highlighted individual is being subjected.

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Finding the Disappeared

Gao Zhisheng with his family.

Disappeared human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng with his family. © AI

On August 30, Amnesty International and other human rights groups around the world will observe the International Day of the Disappeared.  We’ll be pressing governments to disclose the status of  the disappeared and to prosecute those responsible for enforced disappearances.  Here’s how you can join us:

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Human Rights Activists in China Locked Up For Speaking Out

China expressed outrage over the Nobel committee’s decision to award its prestigious Peace Prize to incarcerated Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo.  But the real outrage is China’s treatment of those who dare to speak truth to power.

Liu is just one of many Chinese human rights activists who currently languish in jail in the country (you can take action for Liu here). They are prisoners of conscience, jailed solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

The human rights movement in China is growing, but those who attempt to report on human rights violations or challenge government policies face serious risk of abuse. The authorities make frequent use of vaguely-worded charges to silence and imprison peaceful activists, such as “subversion of state power” (the charge which gave Liu a 11-year sentence), “endangering state security” and “separatism”.

Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, became another victim of this crackdown when she was placed under house arrest after she returned home from visiting Liu in prison after he had won the Nobel prize.  She joins other prominent Chinese activists who have been targeted for daring to criticize the government.  Below we profile five human rights defenders currently locked up in China for speaking out.

Liu Xianbin, 43
Detained since 28 June in Suining Province, Sichuan

Liu XianbinThe prominent Sichuan democracy activist has been held on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” since being seized by security officers at his home four months ago. Local human rights activists believe he is being punished for his activism and defence of human rights. Liu was first imprisoned in 1992 for his participation in the 1989 pro-democracy movement. In 1998, he co-founded the Sichuan branch of the China Democracy Party. The following year, he was sentenced to 13 years in jail for “subversion of state power”. After his release in November 2008 he continued to speak out against the Chinese government. He was a prominent supporter, together with Liu Xiaobo, of Charter 08, a proposal for fundamental legal and political reform in China that aims to achieve a democratic system that respects human rights. He has also published articles on human rights and democracy and worked to increase public awareness of other persecuted activists. Liu is currently awaiting trial.

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Execution Vans, Organ Harvesting – Business as Usual in China

Jinguan Auto's Execution Van

Jinguan Auto

For many years, it has been known that China uses execution vans, kind of like specially outfitted ambulances, to more efficiently carry out its exceedingly large number of executions.  The method of killing in these vans is lethal injection, which has been slowly but surely replacing the firing squad as China’s preferred means of execution, and both lethal injection and the vans are believed to facilitate the widespread practice of harvesting organs of the executed prisoners, an unbelievably appalling practice.

In October 2006, Sky News did a compelling video report - China’s Execution Buses – on the death penalty in China, including a discussion of the vans and organ harvesting, as well as cases of innocence, and the plight of death penalty defense lawyer Gao Zhisheng who has been harassed and detained since at least 2006, and who was once again detained on February 4 of this year. 

Today, a story in the Irish Times discusses these vans, and the Chinese automaker that manufactures and sells them – Jinguan Auto.    (The execution van itself is here.)

In the months leading up to the Olympics, there were a number of hints and statements that reforms in China’s death penalty were being seriously considered, including a declaration from the Chinese Medical Association “not to transplant organs from prisoners or others in custody, except into members of their immediate families.”  This statement was noted in an Amnesty International report two weeks prior to the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremonies, but the report went on to caution that “… Ministry of Health officials have reportedly stated that prisoners will remain a source of organs for five more years as execution-related transplantation winds down.” 

Of course, the Olympics are over now, and the execution vans are apparently still providing “slow but steady business” for Jinguan Auto.