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Rights Groups Welcome Release of Pro-Democracy Activist, But Demand More

December 26, 2002

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, D.C., Dec 26 (OW-US) - Human rights groups are hailing the release of one of China's most celebrated political prisoners this week but insist that many thousands more remaining behind bars should also be set free.

Xu Wenli, who spent more than 16 of the last 21 years of his life in prison due to his persistent campaigning for democratic reform in China, was released on "medical parole" Tuesday and immediately sent into exile with his wife in the United States where his daughter is already living.

His release followed meetings on human rights issues in Beijing last week between Chinese officials and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Lorne Craner. Xu was at the top of a list of political prisoners whose release Washington has been trying to secure over the last several years. His case had become more urgent in recent months due to reports of a serious decline in his health as a result of hepatitis B infection.

"Of course, we're happy to learn of the release of Xu Wenli and the other political activists," said Liu Qing, the president of Human Rights in China (HRIC). "But many other dissidents are still in prison, and they, too, should be unconditionally released immediately."

"It's simply not good enough to occasionally yield to international pressure and release a handful of people who should never have been imprisoned in the first place," he added.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a similar message. "We are thrilled that Xu Wenli is free," said Brad Adams, director of HRW's Asia division. "But no one should mistake his release as a sign of improvement in China's human rights record. This was a token gesture to the [George W.] Bush administration, and a cynical move by Beijing to head off international criticism."

Xu, now 60 years old, was a founder of the 1979 Democracy Wall Movement and editor of the Movement's journal, 'April Fifth Forum.' Charged with "illegally organizing a clique to overthrow the government," he was imprisoned for 12 years, from 1981 to 1993.

After his release, he was placed under intensive surveillance and detained briefly at least eight times for pursuing pro-democracy activities, such as appealing to the government for permission to set up a Chinese human rights group and publishing a journal called the Human Rights Monitor.

He called repeatedly for the creation of a democratic society, independent labor unions, and the reversal of the government's condemnation of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, although he also insisted that he did not wish to overthrow the government.

He also helped to establish the China Democracy Party, which was officially banned in late 1998 after a brief period of relative freedom. Xu and other party activists were rounded up and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Xu himself received a 13-year sentence which he was serving until his release this week.

"Unfortunately, Xu had to accept exile as the price of freedom," HRW's Adams said. "This is a trade-off no one should be forced to make. And Xu Wenli should never have been imprisoned in the first place." Other prominent political prisoners, such as labor activist Han Dongfang, Democracy Wall leader Wei Jingsheng, and 1989 student leader Wang Dan, have all been released over the past five years, but only on condition that they leave the country.

Conditions were also imposed on the release last Friday of two labor activists, Pang Qingxian and Wang Zhaoming, according to the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). They were arrested for "illegal demonstrations" last March in Liaoyang city in northeast China, site of a series of labor disturbances and protests that have taken place over the last several years arising from corruption surrounding the sale or bankruptcy of state enterprises in what is China's "Rust Belt."

According to a report from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the two were released on condition that they collect evidence against their fellow protestors and steer clear of associations with laid-off workers. Several other labor activists convicted of similar charges remained in prison, and union organizers are concerned that the two will be used by the state to sway public opinion against the protests.

"The ICFTU objects to any conditions placed on the release of the workers, who were exercising their legitimate workers' rights," said Guy Ryder, ICFTU's general secretary. "The continued incarceration of [labor activists] Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang remains a cause for great concern."

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