Chasing shadows in China: Detained lawyer's wife battles on

Eva XIAO
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Xu Yan has travelled some 20 times from Beijing to Xuzhou in Jiangsu province in a vain struggle to get any information about Yu Wensheng

With winter approaching, Xu Yan brought some warm clothes and money for her husband to a detention centre in eastern China, though she's not even sure the arrested human rights lawyer is still being held there.

Xu, 37, has travelled some 20 times from Beijing to Xuzhou in Jiangsu province in a vain struggle to get any information about Yu Wensheng after he was taken into custody last year.

Her plight highlights the frustrations, fears and obstacles faced by the families of lawyers and activists who fall foul of the communist authorities and vanish into China's selectively opaque legal system.

Xu returned again this week, joining the line at the Xuzhou City Detention Centre with other people bringing plastic bags bulging with thick duvets and sweaters for inmates.

Along with Yu's lawyers, she then made another failed attempt to get information from court officials.

"I still cannot check where my husband is or the status of his case," said Xu, crying as she held a photo of Yu and a sign demanding to see the judge responsible for his case outside the Xuzhou Intermediate People's Court on Thursday.

"My husband just helps the disadvantaged and marginalised -- and you locked him up for two years," she shouted, as security guards tried to stop her from protesting.

Yu was detained in Beijing in January 2018 in front of his young son after he wrote an open letter calling for constitutional reforms, including multi-candidate elections.

He was later charged with "inciting subversion of state power".

Xu has received very little information since then.

She was able to have a five-minute video call with him in April 2018.

"He was a lot thinner, his hair was longer and messier than when he was at home," Xu recalled. "He mentioned that the Beijing police treated him very poorly. When he said this, he wore a very painful expression."

That same day, she got a government notice saying Yu was held in Xuzhou.

Xu only heard from her brother-in-law -- and then later from her husband's government-backed lawyer -- that Yu was put on trial in May this year.

But nobody knows if he was sentenced and neither his wife nor his lawyers have been able to visit him.

"I feel helpless, disappointed, and also useless," Xu told AFP. "But in my heart, I've never considered giving up."

Yu's case is "typical on how the Chinese authorities deal with dissidents or human rights defenders," said Patrick Poon, a researcher at Amnesty International.

They never make it clear whether family members will be notified of the trial date or even invited, he told AFP.

"All of this is enshrouded in mystery and makes the family very concerned about the safety of the person," he added.

Another human rights lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, was held incommunicado for over 1,000 days without access to his family or a lawyer prior to his closed-door trial in January.

His wife, Li Wenzu, was finally allowed to visit him in jail in June -- nearly four years after he disappeared in a 2015 crackdown on rights lawyers and activists.

- Battling bureaucracy -

The uncertainty over Yu's detention is heightened by the fact that none of the money Xu deposits at the detention centre is ever withdrawn from his account, she said.

Xu explained that money was necessary for basic amenities like toothpaste and toilet paper.

"I'm worried that they've never let him spend the money," she said. If that is the case, "his life will be very hard".

At the city procuratorate, an investigative body, Xu submitted a complaint about her husband's closed-door trial.

Staff typed Xu's complaint and printed it for her signature, but they refused to let her take a copy.

"If you don't give me a copy, I won't sign it," Xu challenged the older man behind the counter.

"Then don't sign it," he retorted.

One of Yu's lawyers, Xie Yang, told AFP there was no record of his client's case at the courthouse.

Xie doesn't even have official documents on Yu's trial date, prosecutor, sentencing, or whereabouts.

The court, the detention centre and the procuratorate could not be reached for comment.

- Cost of activism -

The case has garnered attention overseas, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel meeting Xu and Li Wenzu in Beijing last year.

In January, Xu also picked up the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights on behalf of her husband at the German embassy.

It has come at an emotional -- and financial -- cost.

With no income, Xu is digging into her savings, spending roughly 150,000 Chinese yuan ($21,000) over the past year in seeking justice for her husband.

Her husband's detention has also disturbed their middle school son, who witnessed his father's arrest and several house searches by the police.

The boy has become more introverted and does not like leaving the house, she explained. And if Xu pushes him to, he prefers to go out after dark.

"It's as if he's not as confident when seeing other people anymore," she said. "That makes me very sad."