Rule of Law

China bars imprisoned activist’s access to lawyers, hiding potential mistreatment

Held incommunicado since February, writer and activist Xu Zhiyong will receive PEN America’s 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.


November 20, 2020

(New York, NY) — PEN America has learned that authorities have recently re-extended the “investigation period” into the case against Chinese civil rights lawyer and essayist Xu Zhiyong, allowing them to prolong his incommunicado detention. PEN America said this extension only increases the concern that Xu is being mistreated in custody.

On November 19, the Linyi Public Security Bureau informed Xu’s family that the Shandong Provincial Procuratorate had chosen to extend the investigation period into Xu’s case to January 19, 2021. This is the third time that authorities have extended the investigation period, which allows police to exempt themselves from Chinese legal obligations to allow Xu access to his lawyer. Xu’s lawyers have repeatedly asked for access to their client and have been denied.

“It is painfully obvious that authorities are repeatedly extending the investigation period into Xu’s case in order to deny him his legal rights under both international and Chinese law, and to keep others from seeing how he is being treated,” said James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America. “One major reason that the right of access to legal counsel is enshrined in international law is to ensure that detainees are not being tortured or abused, particularly in order to compel a confession. In Xu’s case, he has had zero contact with the outside world for months. We call upon the Chinese government to allow Xu access to his lawyers, and to demonstrate that he is being treated humanely and within the bounds of the law. Right now, we can only assume the opposite is true.”

Xu—who will receive PEN America’s annual PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on December 8—is a civil rights activist and essayist who has long been a leading figure in China’s civil rights movements. On February 15, Xu was detained at the home of a friend after spending the last several weeks in hiding following a December 2019 crackdown on civil society activists. During that time, Xu penned and published the essay “Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time for You to Go,” criticizing Chairman Xi Jinping for his handling of the coronavirus as well as other governance issues. Xu has been in incommunicado detention since his arrest in February.

In justifying its decision to extend the investigation period, the Public Security Bureau reportedly made reference to Article 159 of the Criminal Procedure Law, which applies to cases where a suspect may be sentenced to a penalty of ten or more years imprisonment. Xu is currently facing charges of “incitement to subversion,” which carry a maximum sentence of 15 years. PEN America is concerned that the invocation of Article 159 may indicate that prosecutors will seek a penalty of at least 10 years imprisonment under the charges.

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