Jailed Chinese lawyer Yu Wensheng wins top human rights prize

A 2018 photo shows protesters in Hong Kong holding a placard of Yu Wensheng.
A 2018 photo shows protesters in Hong Kong holding a placard of Yu Wensheng.PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (AFP) - An imprisoned Chinese lawyer who worked on high-profile rights cases and advocated to abolish the death penalty on Thursday (Feb 11) received the Martin Ennals Award, the world's most prestigious human rights prize.

Yu Wensheng was hailed by the award jury for his "bravery", with Philippe Currat, the head of the Martin Ennals Foundation, voicing hope that shining a light on Yu's achievements would "help him regain the freedom he has lost".

The 54-year-old rights lawyer, who according to his wife Xu Yan is in poor health after years in prison, was detained in Beijing in January 2018 over his activism for democracy and the rule of law.

He was arrested in front of his young son just hours after he wrote an open letter calling for constitutional reforms, including multi-candidate elections.

Last June, he was sentenced to four years in prison, according to his wife, on charges of "inciting subversion of state power".

China 'on notice'

Phil Lynch, head of the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) - one of the 10 leading rights organisations serving on the Martin Ennals Award jury - hailed the prize as "symbolic".

"It highlights how critical the role of committed lawyers is in building a movement to uphold dignity, ensure equality and give everyone in society a fair say in their future," he said.

The award issued by the Geneva-based foundation "also puts the Chinese government on notice that unjustly imprisoning Yu Wensheng... or any other human rights defender, will not go ignored, and that it will not silence their voices," he said.

China has seen a dramatic crackdown on civil liberties and freedoms since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, with hundreds of human rights lawyers and activists detained in recent years.

Initially a corporate lawyer, Yu was known for taking on a number of high-profile rights cases, including the defence of fellow lawyer Wang Quanzhang, who was among more than 300 legal professionals and activists arrested in a July 2015 crackdown.

In addition to taking on human rights cases, the lawyer also publicly advocated for constitutional changes like abolishing the death penalty introducing a multi-party system.

As one of the best known rights activists in China, Yu faced "the severest forms of repression by the Chinese state", the Martin Ennals Foundation said.

In addition to his "arbitrary detention, conviction during a secret trial and expulsion from the legal bar," it pointed to his wife Xu's claims he was being held in solidary confinement, had suffered ill-treatment and been denied medical care.

'An honour'

Xu welcomed her husband's award as "an honour... but also an encouragement to all Chinese human rights defenders to pursue their work despite the hardships."

"My husband always helped others and defended the rule of law. He was never guilty and should be acquitted immediately," Xu said in a statement.

She participated in Thursday's ceremony, which was held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The two runners-up for the award were also honoured at the event.

One was prominent Saudi women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, 31, who was released on Wednesday after nearly three years in detention.

She was arrested along with around a dozen women activists in May 2018, just weeks before Saudi Arabia lifted the decades-old ban on female drivers that they had campaigned against.

The other was Soltan Achilova, a 72-year-old photojournalist who has documented rights abuses and social issues like food insecurity and forced evictions in Turkmenistan.

The Martin Ennals Foundation, which was named after the first secretary-general of Amnesty International, has been given every year since 1994.

The top prize this year is worth between 30,000 and 50,000 Swiss francs (S$44,000 and S$74,000), while the runners-up will each receive 20,000 francs.