Statement concerning the arrest of Yu Wensheng, Martin Ennals Laureate 2021 and his wife Xu Yan

May 5, 2023


The Martin Ennals Foundation is extremely concerned about the new detention of its 2021 Laureate, Yu Wensheng, and his wife Xu Yan, last 13 April by Chinese authorities. We join the demands of the European Union, the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), and many other human rights stakeholders in calling for their immediate release. We denounce the actions of the Chinese authorities to prevent Yu, Xu and other detainees from appointing lawyers of their own choice.

In 2018, Yu Wensheng, a prominent human rights lawyer, was imprisoned for his activism in favor of the rule of law, democracy and governmental reform in China. He was suspended from his work as a lawyer, served a four-year sentence in Nanjing prison and returned home in March 2022 with serious health consequences (result of ill-treatment and neglect). His detention was judged arbitrary by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions in 2019.

Once he could return home, Yu Wensheng, his wife, Xu Yan, and their son set about the task of rebuilding their family life amid constant surveillance by the authorities and a permanent presence of police agents monitoring their movements.

On April 13, 2023, the harassment culminated in a new arrest of Yu Wensheng and of Xu Yan. The two were on their way to a meeting with the European Union in Beijing. They are charged with ‘picking quarrels and provoking troubles’, an accusation that may have severe consequences. Their arrest followed the sentencing of legal scholar Xu Zhiyong and human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi to 14- and 12-years’ imprisonment, respectively, for the alleged crime of ‘subversion of State power’. Yu had criticized in a tweet the harsh sentence and highlighted their commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

The Martin Ennals Foundation condemns this new retaliation against our Laureate and his family and urges the international community to respond firmly to the criminalization of human rights defenders, who are punished for engaging with the international mechanisms mandated to observe, report on, and promote human rights. This arrest by the Chinese authorities is an extremely worrying sign of disrespect towards the fundamental rights of its own citizens and of disengagement with the State’s obligation to protect and promote human rights.

Let us join forces in protecting human rights defenders by holding China to account for its criminalization of activists at the Human Rights Council and other relevant multilateral platforms.

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