Monday, September 03, 2012

China releases one dissident but fate of others remains uncertain

Chinese dissident Wang Xiaoning, convicted of 'subversion' charges in 2002 was released last Friday after a ten year sentence. But many other dissidents remain incarcerated in Chinese jails, some as a result of western companies aiding authorities track them down.

Jailed with Yahoo's help

Wang had been arrested in September 2002 after the Internet company Yahoo assisted Chinese authorities  by providing information used to identify him.

An engineer by profession, Wang posted electronic journals in a Yahoo group calling for democratic reform and an end to single-party rule. This put him in the gun-sights of authorities who sought him out and charged him with "inciting subversion of state power".

As Wang, now 62, was released from the Beijing No. 2 prison, he is far from free. He is still unable to talk freely and has been banned from making any statements to the media. His wife meanwhile conveyed a message saying he was well and in fine spirits. Yu Ling said her husband appreciated everyone's concern but said he could not talk to the media under the conditions of his release [BBC / BBC / Telegraph / NYT].

One of four

Wang was not the only man incarcerated in a Chinese prison as a result of information handed over by the Yahoo. In 2005 Yahoo was highly criticised after it handed data to Chinese authorities resulting in the arrest of at least one Chinese journalist. Shi Tao was jailed after Yahoo helped Chinese officials identify him. He was jailed for sending on to foreign websites an e-mail from the ruling Communist Party warning journalists not to cover the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 2004. He was tracked down and jailed for 10 years for subversion after Yahoo passed on his e-mail and IP address to officials.

Lawmakers and human rights activists in the west have sharply criticized Yahoo for providing information to the Chinese authorities, and for cooperating in investigations involving dissidents.


Yahoo eventually apologized for its role in the case and settled a lawsuit brought by the families of several Chinese activists, paying an undisclosed amount of compensation [NYT].

Yahoo issued a statement on Friday but did not comment directly on Wang's release. "Yahoo! condemns political suppression wherever and however it occurs, and we are committed to efforts like the Global Network Initiative that bring together companies, human rights groups and other stakeholders to actively promote free expression and privacy on the Internet," the statement said. "We hope that democratic governments around the world continue to push for the release of any individuals targeted for simply expressing their political beliefs."

Little comfort

The statement would likely be little comfort to Wang, nor to Shi Tao, Li Zhi and Jiang Lijun who remain in prison. In 2007 Yahoo argued that there was little connection between the information the firm gave and the ensuing arrests and imprisonment of its users. Yahoo had said that while it did not condone the suppression of people's liberties, the firm had been compelled by local laws to hand over the information that was requested.
"Defendants cannot be expected, let alone ordered to violate another nation's laws," the company said in its filing as it attempted to fight off litigation brought about by the World Organization for Human Rights.

Ethical responsibilities

But Morton Sklar of the World Organization for Human Rights said Yahoo had failed to meet its ethical responsibilities. "Even if it was lawful in China, that does not take away from Yahoo's obligation to follow not just Chinese law, but US law and international legal standards as well, when they do business abroad," he said [BBC].

Speaking more recently Joshua Rosenzweig, a human rights researcher based in Hong Kong, said Wang's case showed how the authorities in China could twist the justice system.

"That Wang Xiaoning could be deprived of his freedom for a decade on charges of 'inciting subversion' is an unambiguous example of how Chinese authorities misuse laws designed to protect national security in an effort to protect its monopoly on power from being subjected to criticism," Rosenzweig said. "The Chinese society Wang re-enters enjoys more space for critical voices than it did a decade ago, but those who express themselves politically continue to risk crossing that invisible line that separates 'acceptable' criticism from 'incitement.' "

Unknown fate

While Wang Xiaoning has regained his freedom, the fate of three others, known to have been jailed with the helping hand of Yahoo, remains less than certain.

Shi Tao is not expected to be released until at least 2015, and while Jiang Lijun was only sentenced to four years in prison in November 2003 his whereabouts remain unknown with no word on if and when he'll be released. Li Zhi, who was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for "inciting subversion" in December 2003 should have been released last year, though again there has been no official word or confirmation on whether he has been set free.

While Yahoo has been subject of strong criticism, not least by the US congress, many of China's prisoners of conscience have been jailed without the direct help of western Internet or technology companies [List of dissidents].

Nonetheless there has been condemnation of other companies who have helped provide the technology enabling China impose strict censorship and seek out those it sees as a threat to the state.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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