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Prisoner Profile:Ma Wenlin

June 13, 2002

Ma Wenlin was sentenced to a five-year prison term in November 1999 for “disrupting social order” and “illegally detaining” a county official. Ma, a lawyer from Shaanxi Province, represented 5,000 farmers in a lawsuit against unfair taxes and contributed to efforts petitioning leaders in Beijing to reduce farmers’ tax rates in July 1999. Ma also called for punishment of officials who extort illegal taxes from farmers.



Ma was born in 1942 in the town of Tuoerxiang, northern Shaanxi Province. Born in poverty in Lijia Village, Zizhou County, he had to do seasonal labor to make money so that he could finish elementary and middle school. In 1961, Ma passed an exam to enter the Chinese department of Shaanxi Normal University. After graduation, Ma found work in the city of Yan’an, first in a middle school where he taught third grade. Three years after he joined the Communist Party in 1985, Ma was selected to be a teacher at a more prestigious middle school. In the spring of 1994, Ma completed the Department of Justice exam for lawyers in Yan’an. He was issued a legal service permit, and started working as a lawyer at Yan’an Hushi Legal Service Center where he handled hundreds of cases.

When Ma returned to his hometown during the Spring Festival holiday in 1997, around 10 farmers went to his family house to report a number of problems plaguing other villages in Tuoerxiang, including the unfair tax system, unreasonable fines and widespread corruption and graft practiced by all levels of cadres. The farmers also cited instances of arbitrary detention, and said they had registered complaints at village and county levels on a number of occasions, but to no avail. Ma agreed to be their legal representative and began offering them assistance.

On November 2, 1997, Ma made public government documents relating to unfair policies in Tuoerxiang. On the following day, he and more than 20 villagers were summoned by the local Public Security Bureau. Despite the increased scrutiny, Ma traveled to Zhuanmiao Village to conduct further investigations in December 1997. Ma carried out research, and also offered information about government laws and regulations to the farmers. Shortly after, village representatives Qiao Zengji and Chang Wenming were detained for 15 days on charges of “preparing to disclose government documents.” In a public announcement, the deputy county head called Ma “a swindler,” and the deputy county party secretary issued a warning that “Ma Wenlin will be investigated.”

In early 1999, over 20 village representatives who had filed complaints with officials in Zizhou County were either detained or investigated. In the face of this danger, Ma and village representatives traveled to Xi’an and Beijing to file further complaints with the State Council on a number of occasions. On July 8, 1999, the State Council announced that two officers from the 13th precinct of Beijing’s Public Security Bureau had detained Ma. Ma reportedly struggled with the officers because they did not provide any identification documents or show an arrest warrant. His teeth were smashed and he could not open his eyes because of the beating.

Ma was held in custody for five days. On July 12, Zizhou officials arrived in Beijing with an arrest warrant to bring him back to the county to stand trial. Months later on October 24, 1999, the courts notified Ma that they would begin hearing his case on November 1, later to be pushed back to November 9. Ma was charged with “disrupting social order” and “illegally detaining a county official.”

Both charges against Ma stemmed from reports of graft in Laoshanmao Village in Tuoerxiang that had no connection to Ma’s work in the region. In April 1999, villagers reported corruption in Laoshanmao, and county officials decided to conduct an investigation into the area’s accounting procedures. After officials completed the investigation, they sent a professor named Chao Liang to Laoshanmao Village to return the receipts and other documents they had retrieved to conduct the investigation. When villagers discovered the receipts had been tampered with, they detained Chao and demanded an explanation. He was not released until investigators arrived. Authorities later accused Ma Wenlin of encouraging the villagers to detain Chao although there was no evidence he was connected to the incident.

On November 10, the Zizhou People’s Court sentenced Ma to five years in prison. A higher court rejected Ma’s appeal on December 28. In August 2000, over 3,000 villagers from Zizhou sent a letter to Shaanxi Higher People’s Court, protesting Ma’s imprisonment and asking for his release. Despite this and a petition drive that collected 20,000 signatures calling for his release, Ma is still in jail.

Compiled by Cai Jiquan & translated by Joseph Chaney