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Chinese leader sued for gross human rights violations Tiananmen survivor and student leaders demand accountability

August 31, 2000

Li Peng, the Premier of China at the time of the Tiananmen protests and massacre in 1989 was served this morning with a U.S. federal lawsuit alleging massive human rights violations. The action was brought forward by Liming Zhang, an eyewitness to the bloodshed whose sister was shot dead by martial law troops, as well as Feng Suo Zhou, Gang Liu, Yan Xiong and Dan Wang - four of the 21 "Most Wanted" student leaders who were hunted down by Chinese authorities in the wake of the massacre and who were imprisoned for their role in the Tiananmen demonstrations.

"No official should be above the law for gross violations such as this campaign against peaceful protesters," said Jennie Green, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. "It is now Li Peng’s turn to face justice."

"June Fourth victims have been seeking redress for over a decade. This is an opportunity for them to both benefit from and push forward the power of the ‘Pinochet effect,’" said Xiao Qiang, Executive Director of Human Rights in China. "This lawsuit puts tyrants on notice: they will be held accountable when they venture beyond the protection of their own fortress."

The complaint was filed at the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. Jurisdiction was based on the Alien Tort Claims Act, which provides jurisdiction for torts committed in violation of the "law of nations." The claims filed include crimes against humanity, summary execution, torture, arbitrary detention and violation of the rights to peaceful assembly and association and the rights to life, liberty and security of person.

Li Peng declared martial law on May 20, 1989, precipitating the massacre of unarmed civilians by the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police which were enforcing martial law orders. Li Peng should have sought to halt the egregious abuses of human rights that occurred when the troops began their assault on Beijing on June 3 with tanks and machine guns. But he failed to do so. Plaintiff Liming Zhang and his sister Xianghong Zhang were heading toward Tiananmen Square that night when, they were blocked and dispersed by martial law troops. Xianghong Zhang was hit by a bullet that entered her back and exited her right front shoulder blade. She died of her injuries. Troops continued firing on unarmed civilians for several days. After the massacre, Defendant Li Peng congratulated the troops for their actions in imposing martial law.

"In 1989, when martial law troops shot my sister, I was absolutely stupefied," said Liming Zhang. "I will never forgive myself for not being there to stand between my sister and the bullets. But with this lawsuit, I am standing up to Li Peng. I could not protect my sister’s life, but I will defend her spirit."

In the crackdown on demonstrators following the massacre, a "Most Wanted List" of 21 student leaders was issued by the Ministry of Public Security, which is under direct authority of the State Council which Li Peng headed as Premier. The list was broadcast on national television and published in newspapers. Four of the leaders named on the list were plaintiffs Feng Suo Zhou, Gang Liu, Yan Xiong and Dan Wang.

Human Rights in China (HRIC), the engine behind the case, initiated the project after the Chinese government rejected repeated appeals made by June 4 victims for dialogue with authorities and a proper investigation of the Beijing bloodshed. In the last decade, June 4 victims and family members have issued a flurry of petitions and open letters to China’s leadership, demanding justice and accountability, but to no avail. A group of June 4 victims compiled a list of 155 known dead and 65 wounded, as well as 27 detailed testimonies that describe how individuals were killed and injured during those violent days in the beginning of June 1989. Last year, they submitted these materials to China's Supreme People's Procuratorate (prosecutor general) to lodge an unprecedented legal action, calling for a criminal investigation into the massacre and the prosecution of all those responsible. The Chinese government gave no response. Following the exhaustion of domestic means, HRIC located the plaintiffs of this case to seek justice abroad, gathered evidence of Li Peng’s responsibility for the 1989 events, and approached the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) to act as leading counsel.

CCR was responsible for breaking new ground in international human rights law when its lawyers unearthed the Alien Torts Claims Act to successfully sue a Paraguayan police official for the torture and murder of a 17-year son of a dissident, Joelito Filartiga. In 1980, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit established a key precedent that claims of torture could be heard in U.S. courts. Since that time CCR has also successfully applied the principle of "command responsibility" for human rights violations and has obtained judgments including those against an Argentinean general for the "Dirty War," Prosper Avril (the former Haitian dictator), former Guatemalan dictator Hector Gramajo, Indonesian general Sintong Panjaitan for the massacre in East Timor, and U.S. corporations such as Unocal for slave labor in Burma, and Chevron and Royal Dutch/Shell for attacks on activists in Nigeria.


Human Rights in China (HRIC) , the engine behind this lawsuit, is the largest independent organization focused on monitoring and promoting human rights in the People’s Republic of China. Human Rights in China is dedicated to supporting peaceful grassroots activism; promoting human rights principles; urging scrutiny of the Chinese government’s human rights practice; and facilitating change respectful of human rights in China. Founded in 1989 by a group of Chinese scientists and scholars, HRIC maintains offices in New York and Hong Kong.

Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) , the leading counsel behind this lawsuit, is a New York based, non-profit, public interest legal foundation dedicated to furthering and protecting the civil, constitutional, and human rights of all the oppressed. CCR has independently represented cases that have addressed forgotten people denied basic rights such as: paying sweat shop workers, protecting students from asbestos and establishing that acts such as torture and genocide are illegal under U.S. law.

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