WASHINGTON – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Monday condemned the arrests of two prominent lawyers and human rights activists – Gao Zhisheng in Beijing and Xu Zhiyong in eastern Shandong province.
"The arrests of Mr. Gao and Mr. Xu appear to be an attempt to intimidate and silence those who are using legal means to defend human rights protections in China, and to deny legal representation to a citizen whose views or actions are unacceptable to the Chinese government," said Commission Chair Felice D. Gaer, in a statement released Monday. "Such actions against these prominent courageous attorneys are disgraceful. China should be encouraging more use of legal means, not chilling its use."
Gao demanded the release of Chen Guangcheng, a blind legal activist who has campaigned against China’s harsh population control measures. Chen was accused of disrupting traffic and destroying property in Shandong during a protest in February.
Since November 2005, Chen has been forced to close his law firm for one year because of his refusal to stop defending controversial cases against the government, many involving religious freedom violations such as the case of Protestant Pastor Cai Zhouhua. Gao recently became a Christian and was baptized.
The other arrestee, Chinese lawyer Xu Zhiyong, was preparing to defend Chen before he was detained and his imprisonment has deprived the blind legal activist of his legal defense in his trial Friday, reported USCIRF. Xu was released Friday after Chen’s trial ended. A verdict has not been announced.
Every year since 1999, the State Department has designated China a "country of particular concern" for its ongoing and egregious abuses of religious freedom based on recommendations of the USCIRF.
In recent months, the U.S. government has taken a stronger role in addressing China’s religious freedom problem. In April, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution urging the government of China to reinstate all licenses of Gao Zhisheng and his law firm and revise law and practice in China to observe international standards.
Moreover, President Bush for the first time met with three Chinese Christian rights activists in May to discuss the difficulties faced by unregistered house churches in China. The three Chinese activists were among the speakers at the Freedom in China Summit in Washington held a few days prior to the meeting with Bush. Seven high-profile Chinese activists were invited to speak at the Summit and all accepted the invitation. However, three invitees were detained due to "direct intervention by the Chinese government," including intense harassment, government notification of a dubious court hearing, and an ambiguous conference, according to the Summit’s organizers. Gao Zhisheng was among the three detained.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related international instruments, and to give independent policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.