The family of a rights lawyer detained in northwestern China has been warned to keep quiet after they publicly expressed concern about his deteriorating condition, according to sources close to the family.
The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of political retaliation, also said that lawyer Chang Weiping, who is accused of inciting subversion of state power, was denied his right to legal representation after a defense team hired by the family was pressured into dropping his case.
On Monday, Chang Shuanming, father of the 36-year-old lawyer, said he was recently granted a 10-minute meeting with his son at a police station in Baoji, Shaanxi province — the first since his arrest in late October.
In a post on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging site, the elder Chang described his son as “fragile and tired with red eyes, speaking intermittently … as if he was reciting something.”
In tears, the lawyer discouraged his father, wife and other family members from raising awareness about his case, saying it would be “futile,” according to the post.
At the end of their meeting, the lawyer shouted, “You and Mom have to stay sound and alive,” as his 70-year-old father walked out the door.
“Was he bidding farewell to me?" his father later wrote online. "His voice was so shrill and filled with horror that it instantly broke my heart into pieces. My son, please stay in faith. I will never give up fighting for you.”
Baoji police responded to the Weibo post by threatening the family members, telling them to stay silent and refrain from speaking to media, sources close to the family told VOA.
Sources also said the wife's employers — top-level managers at a Shenzhen hospital — were also pressuring her into silence.
Legal representation denied
Since founding his law practice in 2013, Chang Weiping represented victims of workplace discrimination over HIV/AIDS and litigated cases involving defective vaccines. He also defended rights activists before his license was revoked.
His first arrest, in January, followed his attendance at a gathering of lawyers and activists in the southeastern Fujian province port city of Xiamen. He himself openly said that he was placed under “residential surveillance” at a designated hotel for 10 days before he was released on bail.
He was detained again in late October, six days after posting a YouTube video openly accusing Baoji police of torture during his January hotel detention. At that time, Chang said in the YouTube video, his hands were tightly cuffed to a so-called "tiger chair" — a device used to immobilize suspects during interrogations, and sometimes to keep a detainee's knees bent slightly in the wrong direction — for 24 hours every day in those 10 days.
He concluded the video by insisting on his innocence, saying he had the right to attend the Xiamen meeting.
The legal defense team hired by Chang's family in November was never granted access to its client before, sources tell VOA, the local justice department office forced the team to drop the case.
Neither Guangzhou-based justice officials nor Baoji police have responded to multiple VOA phone and email requests for comment.
Chang's father believes his son is still being tortured — a suspicion shared by U.S.-based Chinese rights lawyer Chen Jiangang, who fled China in 2019 after being warned he would "disappear" if he continued to represent the daughter-in-law of jailed former Chinese leader Zhou Yongkang.
Rights lawyers are largely deprived of sleep while in detention, given unknown medicine or put under isolation, Chen told VOA by phone, describing Chang's decision to yell out to his father during their brief meeting as a sign of profound mental distress.
The Chinese government will never allow a lawyer of the family’s free choice to represent Chang, Chen said. Instead, he said, a government-appointed lawyer will take up the job to later put on a show trial.
That, Chen said, illustrates the collapse of China’s criminal defense system.
Since the massive crackdown on rights lawyers in 2015, “it’s been the Xi Jinping administration’s blueprint to persecute all rights lawyers … whom the Chinese communist regime views as its enemy,” said Chen.
Six international legal groups, including the Bar Human Rights Committee of England & Wales and the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, issued an open letter in November denouncing Chang's arbitrary arrest.
In their five demands, the groups urged China to unconditionally release Chang and allow him free access to lawyers of choice. They also called on authorities to investigate and punish all perpetrators involved in the lawyer’s earlier torture, based China’s obligations under national and international laws.
Six China-based HIV-positive activists last week signed a petition demanding better physical and legal treatment by Baoji police.
In their letter, they heralded Chang's contributions to the HIV/AIDS community, saying he helped “eased stigma and discrimination against people with HIV."
“Every lawsuit he defended has changed the fate of those people,” they wrote.