Rights groups call on Laos to release lawyer held after fleeing China

Sixty-eight organisations sign letter amid fears Lu Siwei could be deported at request of Chinese authorities

Sixty-eight human rights groups have signed an open letter calling on the Laos government to release Lu Siwei, a Chinese former human rights lawyer detained by Laotian police near Vientiane last week.

Lu was seized by police on Friday as he attempted to board a train from Laos to Thailand, where he planned to catch a flight to the US to join his wife and daughter. Nearly one week later, he appears to still be held in Laotian immigration detention, despite reportedly being told that he would be deported to China.

Peter Dahlin, the director of Safeguard Defenders, a human rights group and one of the letter’s signatories, said: “The prolonged period of Lu being held at the immigration department is a clear sign the [Laotian] government is unsure of how to proceed. A deportation like this would otherwise have been completed rather fast, based on prior cases.”

As a rights lawyer in China, Lu had a history of taking on sensitive cases. He defended some of the people arrested in the “709 crackdown” on activists and rights lawyers in 2015 – an event so called because of date on which the crackdown was launched, 9 July.

More recently, in 2020 he was hired to defend one of the 12 Hong Kong youth activists who had been intercepted by Chinese authorities while trying to flee from Hong Kong to Taiwan by boat. After being repeatedly denied access to his client, he was stripped of his licence in 2021. Later that year he was prevented from travelling to the US to take up a fellowship, having been placed under an exit ban.

Lu managed to get to Laos this year. Laos, like many south-east Asian countries, has a history of cooperating with China to detain people wanted by the authorities.

Yang Zewei, an exiled dissident who campaigned against internet censorship in China, disappeared from his home in Vientiane in June. According to Safeguard Defenders, neighbours saw him being taken away by Laotian and Chinese police officers. Yang has not been seen since, but a police officer in his home town in China’s Hunan province confirmed to a friend of Yang’s that his case was being handled by a special taskforce.

Lu is thought to still be in detention in Laos. The open letter’s signatories, which include Amnesty International and Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said: “We are gravely concerned that [Lu] is at serious risk of forced repatriation to China where he faces the high likelihood of torture and other ill-treatment.”

Human rights lawyers in China operate in an increasingly challenging environment, with many being charged with criminal offences or stripped of their licences in retaliation for taking on cases the government deems sensitive. On 18 July, Lawyers for Lawyers, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute and the 29 Principles, three lawyers’ rights groups, submitted evidence to the UN about the “ongoing and systematic criminal prosecution of lawyers in China”.

On Wednesday, a small group of protesters gathered outside the Laotian embassy in Washington DC to call for Lu’s release and deliver the letter to the Laotian authorities. Vientiane has not responded to the demands.

Calls to the Chinese embassy in Laos, China’s foreign ministry, and Laos’s foreign ministry went unanswered.

In April 2020, Lu posted a photo on Instagram of a letter from fellow human rights lawyer Chen Jiahong, firing Lu as his lawyer. Many believed Chen was pressured into the decision. The “human rights situation is getting worse and worse”, Lu wrote. “Disgraceful!”

Contributor

Amy Hawkins Senior China correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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