On the day of his release from prison, Wang Quanzhang, one of China’s leading human rights lawyers, thought he was finally free.
After being held for nearly five years on charges of subversion of state power, Mr. Wang was escorted by police to an apartment building in the eastern city of Jinan. There, he was given a room with iron bars on the windows. Twenty police officers were guarding outside. His mobile phone was confiscated, and his use was later limited and monitored.
Mr. Wang was actually under temporary house arrest, but authorities had another name for him: quarantine.
Rights activists say the coronavirus has given Chinese authorities a new pretext to detain dissidents. Quarantine summaries – often imposed just after detainees, such as Mr Wang, cleared an earlier one – are the latest way to silence dissent, part of a wider campaign under China’s top leader Xi Jinping , to stamp activism through arrests, detentions and harsher internet controls, activists say.
Prior to the pandemic, China had already armed an intense crackdown on human rights, which many activists described as the most aggressive of the protests following Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Quarantine activists are often detained without the knowledge of their families. They are typically “not allowed to communicate with the outside world, held in a secret location and not given the option to identify themselves at home,” said Frances Eve, the deputy director of research at Chinese Human Rights. , watch of rights.
“This treatment is a de facto enforced disappearance,” she said.
Although two-week quarantines are common in Asia for returning travelers, and prisons have been identified as hot spots for coronavirus transmission, details of Mr Wang’s case suggest he was not held purely for public health reasons.
When he was forced into a two-week quarantine in April, the outbreak had already been tampered with in Jinan, and people were free to walk around the city and return to work. Mr Wang said he had already tested the negative virus five times in prison and concluded a 14-day quarantine before his release.
“All of China is now about preventing the epidemic,” said Mr. Wang, who was jailed for three years before he was even charged, and who was the last of hundreds of human rights lawyers. the man who was tried and convicted after their arrests in 2015. .
“Under such a big slogan, personal freedom can be compromised and you can’t say anything,” he said.
Wang Yaqiu, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the pandemic had given the government an excuse to limit the movement so it could “justify human rights violations.”
“It’s clear that these people are not in any condition that needs to be in quarantine,” Ms. Wang said. “Not based on science, it’s just an excuse for the government to restrict their movements and suppress their speech.”
Ms Eve said her rights group had documented nine cases of activists who were recently released from prison and then held in quarantine, but added that “there are likely to be many more.”
Among those forcibly detained in quarantine, the group says, is a citizen journalist who tried to raise awareness about the initial coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan; five labor rights activists; and a sensible worker who, in an interview with a foreign news outlet, had urged people to take up arms against the Communist Party in government.
China’s Ministry of Public Security did not respond to a request for comment.
The Chinese government is not the only one to use the pandemic as an excuse to seize more power, restrict rights or clear dissent. The Indian government updated and kept the critics. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines recently empowered the police to break into people’s homes looking for the sick. And in Hungary, the prime minister can now decide by decree.
Although Chinese law gives government emergency powers to quarantined people during a public health emergency, several local officials have indicated that the practice of placing culprits released in quarantine violates those regulations.
In central Hubei province, police said prisoners ending their prisons needed to be released within 24 hours, according to Shanghai Observer, a state-controlled news website.
The Paper, a Shanghai government-run news site, quoted police officials in Sichuan Province as saying that prisoners must be released “according to law” after undergoing quarantine of 14 – days in jail and a physical exam, which includes a nucleic acid test for coronavirus, blood tests and a CT scan.
Jiang Jiawen, 65 – the redundant worker named by Chinese human rights defenders who had called on the Communist Party to resist – completed a year-and-a-half sentence in March for “raising questions and causing problems . ” In July, he was on his way to meet a friend at the Beijing train station when he was addressed by state security officials.
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Updated July 27, 2020
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They took him to a detention center and interrogated him, Mr. Jiang said. He was then told he had to be quarantined, and brought 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 police officers and two government officers kept the watch out.
No one took his temperature during the 14 days of quarantine, Mr. Jiang said. Officials initially asked him to pay the $ 17 a day fee for quarantine, he said, but he refused.
“They just want to find a reason to keep us,” Mr. Jiang said. “The epidemic gave them a good reason.”
Ding Yajun, a 51-year-old woman who had protested the forced demolition of her home, was released from prison on May 11 in the northern city of Harbin after serving a three-year sentence, also for “It simply came to our notice then. “When she was in jail, officers grabbed her throat, did a blood test and did it for quarantine.
Still, upon release, Ms. Ding was re-quarantined. She said for more than a month, she was kept in a windowless room that was kept locked with an iron bar. It was finally released on June 16.
Liu Xianbin, who spent 10 years in prison for writing articles critical of the Chinese government, was released on June 27 and said he would complete a 14-day quarantine. But he was allowed to make this home in the southwestern province of Sichuan, according to his wife, Chen Mingxian.
“This is national policy and these are special circumstances,” Ms. Chen said. “So we support and understand it.”
Mr. Wang, the human rights lawyer, is now back in Beijing with his family. He says he is followed up occasionally but does not believe he is under the watch’s watch, as many dissidents are after being released from prison.
Recalling his time in quarantine after his release, Mr Wang said police officers often checked on him, even though he was supposed to be isolated.
“It was absurd,” he said. “The real purpose was to shut me up and tell me not to contact my peers.”
Liu Yi contributed research.