On International Human Rights Day, some good news: Anni and Ruli Zhang have been granted political asylum in the United States. Detained overnight as a 10-year-old, Anni is known as “China’s youngest prisoner of conscience.” She and her older sister, Ruli, are the daughters of veteran prodemocracy activist Zhang Lin, who is currently serving a three-and-a-half year jail sentence for standing up for Anni’s right to go to school.
Anni has been dubbed “China’s youngest prisoner of conscience” after she was taken out of school and detained for several hours in February 2013, denied food water and a blanket, and later prevented from attending school and held under house arrest, according to rights groups.
With the help of brave activists in China and the U.S., Women’s Rights Without Frontiers (WRWF) President Reggie Littlejohn was able to secure safe passage to the U.S. for the girls. She and her husband Robert have taken the girls into their home and are raising them as their own daughters.
Littlejohn commented ‘’It is a great honor to be able to help a hero like Zhang Lin by caring for his daughters. He has given up everything for freedom and democracy in China, and is now on his fourth jail sentence. It is a travesty that he is in jail simply for standing up for his daughter’s right to go to school.’’
‘’We are absolutely thrilled that Anni and Ruli have been granted asylum and can remain indefinitely in the United States. We are very grateful to Attorney Jessica Kim, whose outstanding legal representation played a huge role in obtaining this excellent result. We are also grateful to Congressman Chris Smith and blind activist Chen Guangcheng for the letters they wrote on behalf of the girls’ asylum case,’’ Littlejohn said in a statement.
Zhang Lin, 51, is a veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in Anhui and was jailed several times for his political activities since the banning of the opposition China Democracy Party (CDP) in 1998. He was imprisoned most recently in the crackdown on peaceful assembly, association and expression, which began in earnest in March 2013.
His three-and-a-half-year prison sentence was announced by the Bengshan District People’s Court in Bengbu City on September 5th. Authorities seized Zhang in apparent retaliation for protests in support of his ten-year-old daughter, Anni Zhang, who was blocked by authorities from attending school in Hefei City. On February 27th 2013, Anni was removed from Hefei Hupo Elementary School and detained before she and her father were put under house arrest.
In April 2013, Zhang Lin along with several activists and lawyers tried to help Anni return to her school by staging rallies and hunger strikes in front of government buildings, but with no success. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2013 Human Rights Report on China, ”Under government pressure, Hupo Elementary School refused to enroll Zhang Anni for seven weeks.”
“According to their Open Letter, Anni and Ruli are delighted with their new lives in the United States, but they are justifiably concerned about their father. First of all, they are outraged by the injustice done him, as he has done nothing wrong. In addition, their father has been moved from a jail in his hometown, where his elderly parents could visit him, to a city several hours away, where his parents will not be able to visit often. If family members do not bring money to the jail for food, he will be fed only a thin, rice gruel with an ounce of salty vegetable. WRWF is sending money to Zhang Lin’s parents on his behalf, but if his parents cannot visit him, we have no means of getting the money to the jail to ensure that he can eat properly. His health is delicate, and we are worried that if he has to subsist on gruel, his health will break down,’’ Littlejohn said.
According to his daughters, Zhang has suffered numerous illnesses from past detentions and his health is in decline. Chinese Human Rights Defenders recently added Zhang to a watch list of Chinese detainees in urgent need of medical attention, as he is suffering from a condition in his vertebrae, a dental disease, and an eye infection that is threatening his vision.
Depriving medical treatment to individuals in custody is a life-threatening form of torture. Authorities’ failure or refusal to provide adequate medical care for detainees violates Chinese law and, among other international standards, the Convention against Torture, theInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners.
In the Concluding Observations from its review of China in May 2014, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed its concern about reports that detained Chinese activists and lawyers have been deprived of medical care as a form of government reprisal. Recognizing this serious issue, the Committee urged China to guarantee these individuals “have adequate access to health care in all circumstances.”
The deprivation of medical care to further persecute detainees and prisoners of conscience reflects a tacit central government policy and a systematic pattern in practice, says Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
This form of abuse has led to the death of activists, as seen most recently in the tragic case of Cao Shunli. Ms. Cao was managing health conditions at the time she was seized in September 2013, but she was not allowed to take medication that she had brought into detention. After not receiving adequate medical treatment, Cao eventually died in March 2014 from complications of illnesses that worsened or came about during over five months in custody. Others who have died after not being provided medical care in custody include Chen Xiaomin, Duan Huimin, and Goshul Lobsang.
The girls have appealed to US President Obama for the to intervene on their father’s behalf. Zhang supported and participated in the 1989 pro-democracy movement and was sentenced to two years in prison. After his release, he spent a total of six years in Re-education through Labor camps, and another four years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” for his continued activism on labor rights, democracy, and justice.
Zhang was one of the initial signatories of Charter 08, a manifesto on human rights and democracy in China. His autobiography, A Pathetique Soul, recounts his journey as an activist and received widespread acclaim, including from the Chinese Independent PEN Center.
Littlejohn reflected: ‘’Rob and I enjoy being the American parents of Anni and Ruli, and we are very proud of them. Both girls have made an astonishing transition to life in the United States. At home, we have them on a program of learning 50 English words a day. This may seem like a lot, but they are extremely smart and have been keeping pace without a problem.’’
“We will always remember Jing Zhang of Women’s Rights in China for connecting me with the Zhang daughters and helping get them out of China. We also thank Chinese activist Hu Jia, as well as the three activists who remain wrongfully jailed for helping Anni: Yao Cheng, Zhou Weilin, Li Huaping. Women’s Rights Without Frontiers demands their immediate, unconditional release,” Littlejohn added.
Since March 2013, Chinese police have taken into custody dozens of activists, lawyers and other citizens in a crackdown meant to suppress peaceful assembly, association, and expression around the country. The strident response by authorities has partially been triggered by advocacy campaigns waged against official corruption and other politically sensitive issues.