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China uses coronavirus as cover to arrest dissidents, activists say

The day he was released from prison, Wang Quanzhang, one of China’s best-known human rights lawyers, thought he was finally free.

After Mr. Wang was detained for nearly five years because of subversion of state power, the police took him to a house in the eastern city of Jinan. There he was given a room with iron bars on the windows. Twenty police officers stood guard. His cell phone was confiscated and its use was later restricted and monitored.

Mr. Wang was practically under house arrest, but the authorities had another name for it: Quarantine.

Human rights defenders say the corona virus has given the Chinese authorities a new excuse to detain dissidents. Summary quarantines – often immediately after prisoners like Mr. Wang cleared a previous one – are the newest way to silence dissent. This is part of a broader campaign under China’s top leader Xi Jinping to promote activism through arrests, detentions and tougher Internet controls, activists say.

Before the pandemic, China had already launched an intensive human rights campaign that many activists have described as the most aggressive since Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

Quarantined activists are often detained without their families’ knowledge. They are typically not allowed to “communicate with the outside world, are in a secret location, or have the ability to isolate themselves at home,” said Frances Eve, deputy research director at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a rights watchdog.

“This treatment is de facto forced disappearance,” she said.

Although two-week quarantines are common for returning travelers in Asia, and prisons have been identified as focal points for coronavirus transmission, the details of Mr. Wang’s case suggest that he was not detained just for public health reasons.

When he was forced into a two-week quarantine in April, the outbreak in Jinan was already tamed and people could move freely around the city and return to work. Mr. Wang said that he had tested the virus five times in prison and completed a 14-day quarantine before he was released.

“Epidemic prevention is now all over China,” said Wang, who had been in prison for three years before he was charged, and who was the last to be tried and sentenced by hundreds of human rights lawyers after their arrest in 2015 .

“With such a big motto, personal freedom can be compromised and you can’t say anything,” he said.

Yaqiu Wang, a Chinese researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the pandemic had given the government an excuse to restrict the movement so that it could “justify the violation of human rights”.

“These people are clearly not in a quarantine state,” said Ms. Wang. “It’s not scientifically based, it’s just an excuse for the government to restrict its movements and suppress its language.”

Ms. Eve said her rights group had documented nine cases of activists who were recently released from prison and then quarantined, but added that “there is likely to be a lot more”.

According to the group, among the people in quarantine is a citizen journalist who has tried to raise awareness of the first outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan. five labor rights activists; and a dismissed worker who, in an interview with a foreign news agency, asked people to take up arms against the ruling Communist Party.

The Chinese Ministry of Public Security did not respond to a request for comment.

China’s government is not the only one using the pandemic as an excuse to gain more power, restrict rights, or fight dissent. The Indian government has rounded up and arrested critics. President Rodrigo Duterte the Philippines The police were recently authorized to enter people’s homes in search of the sick. And in Hungary the Prime Minister can now rule by decree.

Although Chinese government law grants emergency powers to quarantine people during a public health emergency, several local officials have pointed out that the practice of quarantining released prisoners is against the law.

In central Hubei province, police said prison inmates who are serving their terms of imprisonment should be released within 24 hours, according to Shanghai Observer, a state-controlled news website.

The newspaper, a Shanghai government-run news site, quoted police officers in Sichuan Province as saying that prisoners must be released after a 14-day quarantine in prison and a physical checkup “in accordance with the law” includes a nucleic acid test for the corona virus, blood tests and a CT scan.

Jiang Jiawen, 65, the dismissed worker mentioned by Chinese human rights defenders who called for resistance to the Communist Party, was sentenced to one and a half years in prison for “arguments and anger” in March. In July, he was out to meet a friend at a Beijing train station when he was raided by state security officers.

They took him to a detention center and interrogated him, said Mr. Jiang. Then they told him to quarantine and took him to a hotel room in the northern city of Dandong, more than 500 miles away. The room had iron bars on the door and windows. Two policemen and two government officials were on guard outside.

During the 14-day quarantine, nobody measured his temperature, said Jiang. Officials initially asked him to pay the $ 17 daily quarantine fee, he said, but declined.

“They just want to find a reason to arrest us,” said Mr. Jiang. “The epidemic gave them a good reason.”

Ding Yajun, a 51-year-old woman who protested the forced demolition of her home, was released from prison in the northern city of Harbin on May 11 after a three-year sentence, also because she “picked up disputes and caused trouble.” “When she was in prison, officials wiped her throat, performed a blood test, and quarantined her.

After her release, Ms. Ding was quarantined again. For more than a month, she was held in a windowless room that was locked with an iron truncheon, she said. She was finally released on June 16.

Liu Xianbin, who had spent 10 years in prison writing articles criticizing the Chinese government, was released on June 27 and was asked to complete a 14-day quarantine. However, according to his wife Chen Mingxian, he was allowed to do so at home in the southwest province of Sichuan.

“This is national policy and this is special,” said Ms. Chen. “So we support and understand it.”

Mr. Wang, the human rights lawyer, is now back in Beijing with his family. He says he is occasionally persecuted, but does not believe that he is monitored 24 hours a day since most dissidents are out of prison after they are released.

Mr. Wang recalled his quarantine period after his release and said that police officers often checked him, even though he was supposed to be isolated.

“It was absurd,” he said. “The real purpose was to silence me and tell me not to contact my friends.”

Liu Yi contributed to the research.

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