China has released two prominent human rights lawyers detained nearly two years ago, after they allegedly confessed in court to collaborating with foreign organizations and media to smear and subvert Communist Party rule.
The two men's release narrows the list of human rights campaigners who are still being held as part of China's "7-09 crackdown," in which authorities on July 9, 2015, detained hundreds in a coordinated nationwide sweep that sent a chill through the country's activist movement.
The cases of Xie Yang and Li Heping, suddenly freed after two-year ordeals, follow an established pattern of the Chinese government exerting enormous pressure on human rights advocates, their family members and colleagues, seemingly with the goal of forcing public displays of submission rather than meaningful convictions in a court of law.
An attorney representing Xie said Wednesday that the activist lawyer was freed and at home celebrating his mother's birthday. Xie's release came shortly after he pleaded guilty in a cursory trial to inciting subversion of state power and read from a prepared statement denouncing his past activism and warning other human rights lawyers against pursuing such work. He also recanted previous allegations of torture which had gained international attention. It's not clear whether he had been sentenced.
Supporters of Li said the Beijing-based lawyer was also driven home Tuesday and released videos of him emotionally embracing his wife, Wang Qiaoling. A northern Chinese court announced in late April that Li had confessed during a secret trial to attacking and discrediting China's political and legal systems. He received a suspended three-year sentence.
Li's wife, who has been highly outspoken about her husband's detention, did not immediately offer comment after his release.
Among those still held as part of the "7-09" saga are Jiang Tianyong, an activist who worked to publicize the plight of the lawyers' families but then found himself caught in the government dragnet last November, and Wu Gan, a well-known blogger.
The resolution of Xie's and Li's cases carries echoes of last August, when leaders of the civic rights movement suddenly reappeared on state television after nearly a year in detention. In filmed interviews, they disavowed their previous work and apologized for working with foreign civil society groups and media to shine a light on China's domestic problems. Some, like the lawyer Wang Yu, were released shortly after giving televised confessions, the government apparently uninterested in further pursuing its charges.
Frances Eve, a researcher at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a private organization that has closely tracked the "7-09" crackdown, said it was difficult to believe "wooden confessions that parrot the party line after months of incommunicado detention."
"Televised confessions reinforce that the CCP is clearly not interested in rule of law," she said. "It's part of the elaborate propaganda machinery to scare domestic audiences by saying defending human rights is a crime, and tries to unsuccessfully deflect international criticism."
The confessions appeared to send a message from the ruling Communist Party that cooperation between Chinese activists and foreign organizations would be considered as meddling in China's affairs or imposing liberal Western values on its society and would not be tolerated. Despite rapid economic growth and vastly increased personal freedoms, the party remains determined to crush any activity seen as challenging its political authority.
Four months prior to his release, Xie's family released a jailhouse statement from him saying he had been tortured and that if he publicly confessed at any point in the future, it would be because he broke down under enormous government pressure and coercion.
Xie's wife, who has fled to the U.S., called her husband's trial a sham and said history would judge its participants.
"Your play was performed beautifully," she said in a sardonic statement.