China's 'War on Law': Where human rights lawyers are enemies of the state

In China today, there are human rights lawyers being held in prison cells, deprived of food, water and sleep and repeatedly tortured and taunted by those who hold them.

Clashes between police and human rights activists have become more common Credit: ITV News

The charge against them is subversion. They are treated as enemies of the state.

They have dared to take on the government and defend those who have had their rights abused.

For this, they are accused of sabotaging the country’s legal order. For this, they have found themselves suddenly thrust into the back of an unmarked police car and held for months, or in some cases years, without trial.

This week we spoke to the parents of Jiang Tianyong. They have been warned not to speak to journalists - especially foreign journalists - but they were willing to take the risk because they believe that it will only be pressure from the international community that ultimately helps their son.

His mother Wei Ziyuan said: “I am so worried. We’ve been told they are torturing lawyers. Sometimes, they are not even allowed to drink water."

They told us their son’s only crime was to try to help others.

He likes to help other people, he has done since he was very young. When people come to him for help, he always helps.

– Wei Ziyuan
Human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong is in prison, accused of 'subversion' Credit: ITV News

Their concerns have been heightened since the release of documents exposing the torture being endured by a lawyer held in the same place as their son.

Lawyer Chen Jiangang decided to risk his career and his safety to reveal the abuse suffered by his former colleague Xie Yang.

“They have choked him, slapped him, punched him and made him sit up straight for 22 hours a day," he said.

"Every day for the past six months, the police have taken turns to torture him.”

Chen said it was the most devastating anti-lawyer action since the Cultural Revolution.

Human rights lawyers are being painted by the state media as con artists, sexual predators and foul-mouthed hooligans.

Wei Ziyuan said she is worried about her son's safety Credit: ITV News

In the years leading up to the crackdown, the number of lawyers willing to take on politically sensitive cases had started to grow. But not now.

Human rights lawyers are the enemies of the government.

They can question you at any time with any excuse. A lot of my colleagues and me have suffered from this I have been monitored and threatened for a long time.

They have threatened to take away my legal licence and for the past two years I’ve been unable to leave the country.

They have one motive and that is to eliminate human rights lawyers - [either] put them into jail or force them to shut up.

– Chen Jiangang, lawyer

On the outskirts of Beijing, in a rented apartment, the families of lawyers Li Heping and Wang Quachang are now living together.

Since the men were arrested in July 2015, their wives have been campaigning for their release and that has come at a cost.

Li Wenzu’s seven-year-old daughter Jianmai was not allowed to take up her place at school, and Wang Qiaoling’s four-year-old son Guang Wei has been denied access to nursery.

Guang Wei was denied access to nursery because his father was jailed, and his mother is campaigning for his release Credit: ITV News

In the eighteen months since their fathers have been illegally detained they’ve come to develop their own understanding of what’s going on.

Wang Xiaoling said: "My son asked me, are they monsters? I said yes, they are. He said I will grow up quickly to beat the monsters and rescue daddy. I said, good boy."

The wives themselves have been subjected to harassment, and now live together because they’ve been forced to move apartments so many times. Each time, the police tell their landlords they are anti-government, and they get thrown out.

I have been detained nine times. Ms Li I think around five times.

We’ve been taken to police station for no apparent reason. We have been beaten and threatened and once we were subjected to a humiliating strip search.

– Wang Xiaoling, campaigner

The European Union has called on China to investigate the reports of torture, and in the US Senate this week Senator Marco Rubio raised the cases of Jiang Tianyong and Xie Yang.

International pressure is mounting on the Chinese government to defend its so-called ‘War on Law’, and explain why in 2017 being a lawyer can make you an enemy of the state.