Yu Wensheng, a lawyer who held his government to account

February 12, 2021

Yu Wensheng fought for constitutional reforms and defended other activists arrested for their human rights work in China. His activism drew the ire of the government and earned him a sentence of several years in prison on the grounds of “subversion of state power”. For showing exceptional courage and commitment to the rule of law, Yu Wensheng was named the 2021 Martin Ennals Award Laureate on 11 February 2021.

A day of celebration

On this day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, Yu Wensheng’s family will celebrate. “I bought lots of snacks. We have planned to stay home and spend quality time together, just myself and the kids”, his wife Xu Yan tells us. Against all odds, there is reason for hope. “The Martin Ennals Award is the best gift for our family. It makes us hopeful and gives us great strength. I will never give up on Yu Wensheng”, she added.

A leading human rights lawyer

Born in a senior cadre family in Beijing with a father engaged in foreign affairs, Yu Wensheng had access to international media and became aware of concepts such as the rule of law, democracy and human rights from a young age. He started his law career as a promising business lawyer but soon gave up his successful practice to use his legal skills for the promotion and protection of human rights. He authored articles and gave statements advocating for democracy and government accountability to its citizens. During the “709 Crackdown” on Chinese human rights activists in 2015, Yu Wensheng vigorously defended the rights of those detained, particularly other prominent lawyers who were arrested for their promotion of human rights. Despite the significant risks, he persevered. In 2018, Yu Wensheng published a letter demanding constitutional reforms from the Chinese government. Only a day later, he was arrested.

Yu is a political prisoner, detained because he exercised his right to freedom of expression and for his courage to defend fellow human rights lawyers”, says Silke Pfeiffer from the Martin Ennals Jury Member organization Brot für die Welt.

1000 km away from home

Before his detention in 2018, Yu Wensheng was harassed, disbarred, and convicted in secret for inciting subversion against state power. Reports also say that while in custody, Wensheng was tortured and denied medical care. In December 2020, a regional Court of Jiangsu province upheld an appeal against his four-year prison sentence. He was sent to Nanjing prison, 1045 Km away from his family, days before the Martin Ennals Award ceremony.

His wife Xu Yan was allowed recently to talk to him via videoconference for a brief moment. She said he looked emaciated, weak and in need of a medical check-up.

Xu Yan is fighting relentlessly for her husband’s rights: “My husband’s activism was always meant to help others, not himself. He was only exercising his right to freedom of speech and the professional right of a lawyer granted by the Constitution. He was never guilty and should be acquitted immediately”, she said to the Martin Ennals Foundation. “My husband’s detention speaks of unfairness and lawlessness. The Chinese government only abides to the laws and regulations when it is beneficial to them”, she added.

International support is essential

Members of the Martin Ennals Award Jury unanimously agree that being a human rights lawyer in an authoritarian regime like China requires an immense amount of courage, especially at times where Chinese authorities pressure and silence activists and their family members as well.

In 2020, Chinese authorities harassed human rights defenders raising concerns about COVID, defending ethnic minorities, and standing up against corruption”, says Andrew Anderson, Front Line Defenders Executive Director and member of the Jury.

International support to human rights defenders is essential, as it can often be the only lifeline for Defenders working under authoritarian regimes. Support can take many forms – including the visibility and publicity that the Martin Ennals Award offers its winners. The ten members of the Jury of the Martin Ennals Award offer legal services to human rights defenders, as well as grants for rest and respite, and psycho-social counseling, amongst other forms of support to help Defenders continue their work.

Learn more about Yu Wensheng