On the day of his release from prison, Wang Quanzhang, one of China’s leading human rights lawyers, thought he was finally free.
After being detained for nearly five years on charges of subversive government, Mr. Wang was taken by police to an apartment building in the eastern city of Jinan. There he got a room with iron bars on the windows. Twenty policemen stood outside. His cell phone was confiscated and its use was later restricted and monitored.
Mr. Wang was indeed under temporary house arrest, but the authorities had a different name for him: quarantine.
Rights activists say the coronavirus has given the Chinese authorities a new pretext for detaining dissidents. Comprehensive quarantines – often imposed immediately after detainees, like Mr Wang’s cleared the previous one – are the latest way to silence dissent, part of a wider campaign under China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, to suppress activism by arrest, detention and tougher Internet controls. say activists.
Prior to the pandemic, China had already begun an intense human rights crackdown, which many activists described as the most aggressive since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
Quarantined activists are often detained without the knowledge of their families. They usually “are not allowed to communicate with the outside world, they are held in a secret place and they do not have the opportunity to isolate themselves at home,” said Frances Eve, deputy director of research at China’s human rights defender.
“This treatment is de facto forced to disappear,” she said.
Although two-week quarantines for returning passengers are common in Asia, and prisons have been identified as hot spots for coronavirus transmission, the details of Mr Wang’s case suggest that he was not detained for purely public health reasons.
When he was forced into a two-week quarantine in April, the outbreak was already tamed in Jinana and people were able to move freely around the city and return to work. Mr Wang said he had been tested for the virus five times before and completed a 14-day quarantine before he was released.
“All of China is currently involved in epidemic prevention,” said Mr Wang, who was held in prison for three years before he was charged and was the last of hundreds of human rights lawyers convicted after his 2015 arrest. and conviction,
“Under such a big slogan, personal freedom can be threatened and you can’t say anything,” he said.
Yaqiu Wang, a Chinese scientist at Human Rights Watch, said the pandemic provided the government with a justification for restricting movement so that it could “justify human rights violations.”
“These people are clearly not in quarantine,” Ms. Wang said. “It’s not scientific, it’s just an excuse for the government to limit its movements and suppress their speech.”
Eve said her rights group had documented nine cases of activists who had recently been released from prison and then detained in quarantine, but added that “there are probably many more.”
The group states that among those forcibly detained in quarantine is a civilian journalist who sought to raise awareness of the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan; five labor rights activists; and a fired worker who, in an interview with a foreign intelligence service, called on people to take up arms against the ruling Communist Party.
The Chinese Ministry of Public Security did not reply to the request for comments.
The Chinese government is not the only one to use the pandemic as an excuse to gain more power, restrict rights or crack down on dissent. The Indian government has rounded up critics and detained them. President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines recently authorized police to enter the homes of people looking for the sick. And in Hungary, the prime minister can now rule by regulation.
Although Chinese legislation grants quarantine persons to government emergency services in the event of a threat to public health, several local officials have stated that the practice of placing released prisoners in quarantine is contrary to those regulations.
According to the central province of Hubei, police said prisoners who met the conditions of the prison must be released within 24 hours. According to the state news website Shanghai Observer.
The paper, a news server run by the Shanghai government, quoted police officials in Sichuan Province as saying that prisoners must be released “in accordance with the law” after undergoing a 14-day quarantine in prison and a physical examination involving a nucleic acid test. for coronaviruses, blood tests and CT scans.
Jiang Jiawen, 65, a fired worker talked about by Chinese human rights defenders who called for opposition to the Communist Party – completed a six-month sentence in March for “picking up quarrels and causing problems.” In July, he was on his way to meet a friend at Beijing Railway Station when he was arrested by state security officials.
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They took him to a prison facility and interrogated him, Mr Jiang said. He was then told he must be quarantined and taken to a hotel room in northern Dandong, more than 500 miles away. The room had iron bars on the doors and windows. Outside, two police officers and two government officials guarded.
No one got out of the temperature during the 14-day quarantine, Mr Jiang said. Officials initially asked him to pay a daily fee of $ 17 for quarantine, but refused.
“They just want to find a reason to detain us,” Mr Jiang said. “The epidemic gave them a good reason.”
Ding Yajun, a 51-year-old woman who protested the forced demolition of her home, was released from prison in northern Harbin on May 11 after three years in prison, including for “taking quarrels and causing problems.” “When she was in prison, officials shook her throat, did blood tests and quarantined her.
Following her release, Ms Ding was quarantined again. She was detained in a windowless room for more than a month, which was kept locked with an iron baton. She was definitively released on June 16.
Liu Xianbin, who spent 10 years in prison for writing articles critical of the Chinese government, was released on June 27 and said he had completed a 14-day quarantine. However, according to his wife Chen Mingxian, he could have done it at home in the southwestern province of Sichuan.
“This is a national policy and these are special circumstances,” Ms Chen said. “So we support it and understand it.”
Mr. Wang, a human rights lawyer, is now in Beijing with his family. He says he is occasionally monitored, but does not believe he is under constant surveillance because most dissidents are released from prison.
Mr Wang recalled his time in quarantine after his release and said police often checked him, even though he was to be isolated.
“It was absurd,” he said. “The real purpose was to shut me down and tell me not to contact my friends.”
Liu Yi contributed research.