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Victims collect evidence for prosecution of June Fourth crimes launch unprecedented legal action

June 1, 1999

A group of 105 victims and family members of those killed in the 1989 crackdown have submitted a legal petition to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (China’s prosecutor general) demanding that it conduct a criminal investigation into the June Fourth Massacre and bring prosecutions against those responsible, including top leaders such as Li Peng. Along with the petition, they submitted newly-collected evidence of the crimes committed during the massacre by martial law troops, acting on the orders of the leadership.

This evidence includes 27 detailed signed testimonies — 24 by the families of people who died, and three by people wounded in the assault on Beijing—describing the circumstances in which individuals were shot and otherwise injured. It also includes lists of 155 people who died/>/> and 65 who were wounded, which contain further information about the specific behavior of martial law troops. The victims range in age from nine to 61 and include people from all walks of life. Some of the testimonies are the result of long and difficult investigations by families of those who died.

An initial petition and all the evidence was submitted to an official of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in Beijing on May 17, 1999, by Zhang Xianling, 62, and Su Bingxian, 64, who both lost their sons in the massacre. On May 24 the two women handed in supplementary materials, which they were able to leave at the gate of the Procuratorate. These included a legal brief outlining why the evidence is sufficient to show that the actions of the martial law troops constituted crimes under Chinese law, namely premediated murder and intentional injury, as well as pointing out that the Procuratorate has a responsibility to investigate such acts. The petition called on the Procuratorate to investigate the responsibility of those who gave the orders to commit these crimes, including former Premier Li Peng, and of the martial law troops who carried them out. It also suggested that although deceased persons cannot be the subject of criminal investigations under Chinese law, for the purposes of establishing the full story, the Procuratorate should also examine the role of such figures as Deng Xiaoping and Yang Shangkun.

The evidence compiled by the June Fourth victims network in the face of unrelenting official intimidation shows that the violence employed by martial law troops went far beyond what could be considered reasonable to disperse unarmed crowds. Not only was live ammunition used, often sprayed at random at crowds from semi-automatic weapons, but also large caliber ordnance, which causes severe physical injury, was fired from tank-mounted machine guns. No warnings were given before troops opened fire, and many protesters were shot in the back when trying to flee. The evidence shows that in some cases the troops prevented the evacuation of the wounded and shot at medical personnel attempting to aid them, and there are some indications that medical vehicles were prevented from moving around the city to pick up the injured. Hospitals were not notified that they should expect casualties, and many people died from loss of blood. In some cases, troops appear to have exceeded even the brutality permitted by their orders and committed atrocities such as running over people with tanks and bayonetting individuals.

Neither brutality by individual soldiers nor the excessive violence sanctioned in the name of restoring "order" were justified by the situation, and thus they constitute serious crimes under Chinese law, as well as clear violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

The Geneva Conventions prohibit attacks on civilians and the use of weapons designed to cause grave injury. They also require that during combat situations, troops give safe passage to medical personnel and ensure the evacuation of the wounded. Although the Geneva Conventions do not technically apply to "internal disturbances," the standards they contain are considered to be customary international law.

The fact that the State Council declared a state of emergency in Beijing does not mean that the acts committed can be justified under international law. Even under Chinese law the lawful declaration of states of emergency or martial law clearly does not provide carte blanche for the kind of indiscriminate killing and attacks on civilians which occurred. In addition, in the light of the peaceful character of the demonstrations in Beijing and their focus on demanding respect for basic rights, there is serious doubt as to whether declaring martial law in Beijing can be considered lawful under either Chinese or international law.

But even if a state of emergency had been warranted, the violations of human rights by the martial law troops during the massacre went far beyond what international law permits. It allows only for the temporary suspension of certain rights (such as freedom of expression) for a limited duration when the nation is "at risk," but does not, in any circumstances, allow violations of the right to life or of the right to be free from torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment.

Human Rights in China believes that the pattern of actions described in the materials collected by the June Fourth victims network constitute evidence that crimes against humanity, as currently defined in international law, were committed during those days in June. Thus Human Rights in China joins with the victims to demand the prosecution of those who gave the orders as well as individual soldiers responsible for atrocities. We call on the international community to provide full support to this effort to end the cycle of impunity which has allowed serious abuses of human rights in China to go unpunished again and again.

The June Fourth victims, in action spearheaded by Ding Zilin, who lost her 17-year-old son in the massacre, have appealed to the Chinese government for justice again and again, but have received no response whatsoever, apart from more intimidation. Now they are taking this a step further. If they receive no response, they intend to pursue the matter outside the country with the ultimate objective of achieving an international criminal prosecution. Such action could be taken through an ad hoc criminal tribunal to try crimes against humanity, a suit brought in the International Court of Justice or in a national court with universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity.

In the coming months, Human Rights in China will be submitting the evidence presented here to different international bodies with the objective of creating a consensus of expert international human rights opinion that the crimes described in the testimonies and the list constitute crimes against humanity, and thus should be subject to prosecution internationally if the Chinese authorities refuse to take action. We will also be petitioning governments to take up this matter, as it will not be possible to bring legal action in an international court without the cooperation of governments. HRIC will be filing this evidence with all relevant U.N. bodies, particularly various experts and working groups under Commission on Human Rights. "HRIC is determined to pursue all channels of remedy until there is an end to the cycle of impunity," Xiao Qiang, HRIC executive director said. "As a first step towards justice, national reconciliation and true stability, the Chinese government must acknowledge that the 1989 massacre was a crime against the Chinese people."

The struggle of these families and individuals to reveal the reality behind the massacre is not only about justice for the victims of June Fourth. It is also a vital part of the struggle for an accountable government in China which respects human rights and freedoms. This century’s history has demonstrated time and again that the truth of major crimes by governments against their people will eventually be revealed, and that a lawful and just settling of accounts is inevitable. In this sense, the June Fourth victims have time on their side. But they will need the assistance of the international community in achieving an objective which is, after all, in the interests of a peaceful world in the next century.

Related Information:

  • Report by Human Rights In China
    June Fourth Massacre: Testimonies of the wounded and the families of the dead, June 1999