Prominent Chinese rights lawyer returns home after near two-years' detention

Chinese rights lawyer Li Heping's wife, Wang Qiaoling was fearful his detention would be extended.
Chinese rights lawyer Li Heping's wife, Wang Qiaoling was fearful his detention would be extended.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (REUTERS) - Prominent Chinese rights lawyer Li Heping has returned to his Beijing home after being held for nearly two years amid a sweeping clamp-down on civil society, his former lawyer said on Wednesday (May 10).

Li, who once defended practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and dissident writers, was sentenced to a suspended three-year jail term for subversion in a closed trial last month.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has overseen a campaign to tighten the space for independent civil society in China. In July 2015, dozens of rights lawyers, including Li, were detained in a coordinated crackdown.

Beijing has said that rights lawyers endanger national security and social stability.

Li, who had been previously been tried and held in the port city of Tianjin, an hour west of Beijing, was escorted back to his Beijing home by police on Tuesday, his former lawyer, Ma Lishun, told Reuters. "He's been moved from the small jail to the big jail," Ma said, adding that Li might be detained again if he writes essays that the government does not like or speaks to foreign media.

Li's wife, Wang Qiaoling, who was kept in the dark about the trial for three days after it took place, told Reuters the day the sentence was made public that she feared the authorities would continue to hold Li.

A thin Li with short white hair held his wife and daughter in a tight embrace on entering their flat, according to videos of the reunion shared on instant messaging platforms by rights activists.

Neither Li nor Wang answered their phones when called by Reuters on Wednesday.

The video also included sound of a young boy asking why his father had not yet returned home. Activists said he was the son of Wang Quanzhang, another lawyer who has also been missing since 2015.

Reuters was unable to independently verify the accuracy of the videos.

A number of others caught up in the crackdown remain missing, including Jiang Tianyong, a legal activist previously involved in the case of blind activist Chen Guangcheng, who fled to the United States in 2012.

On Monday, a city court in central China tried another prominent rights lawyer, Xie Yang, whose case garnered international concern after his wife released an account of his suffering torture while in custody.

Unlike Li's trial, state media and the court's social media account broadcast transcripts and videos of Xie's trial, showing him deny he had been tortured, accept charges against him and issue a warning to fellow rights lawyers.

A verdict in Xie's trial has yet to be announced.