Posted by: Dexter Roberts on February 21, 2008
More grim news suggesting that Beijing is far from fully behind the idea of an open Olympics came earlier this week on February 19th. That was the day that lands right activist Yang Chunlin went on trial in the Northeastern province of Heilongjiang for “inciting subversion against state power”—a catch-all charge used to indict activists that have upset the powers that be in China.
According to his lawyer, Yang was led into the courtroom in handcuffs and leg irons and was chained to a chair for the five hour trial. In a press release on the day of the trial, New York-based Human Rights Watch said there were “repeated, grave, and uncorrected procedural violations” in Yang’s case, and cited allegations of torture, denial of access to defense lawyers for weeks following his arrest in July of last year, as well as police intimidation of Yang’s relatives and lawyers. A verdict is not expected for two weeks.
So what did Yang do wrong? First of all he organized a petition that drew 10,000 signatures from farmers upset about what they view as illegal land grabs by developers (a huge and growing problem across China) in his home town of Jiamusi, Heilongjiang. And while that alone may have been enough to draw the wrath of local officials, Yang’s biggest crime in the eyes of the state was no doubt his decision to link his cause with Beijing’s upcoming summer Olympics. “We want human rights, not the Olympics,” Yang wrote in the petition.
Yang’s case too appears to be part of a larger crackdown on dissent in the run-up to the Olympics. Human Rights Watch points to “a growing pattern of using loosely defined subversion charges to suppress dissidents and activists ahead of the Games” and cites the examples of five other dissident writers and activists who have been arrested or sentenced to jail over the last year. Only Yang’s case however, seems related directly to the Olympics.
“The Chinese government must recognize that the Games will only be truly successful if the perception is that China has kept its word about better respecting human rights,” wrote Sophie Richardson, a director at HRW. Some words worth pondering as Beijing prepares for this summer’s big sports event.