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Free Yang Jianli

On his 40th birthday recently, Chinese pro-democracy activist Yang Jianli languished in a Chinese prison. That same day, his wife, Harvard Medical School researcher Christina Fu, and their two young children, Aaron and Anita, spent over an hour outside the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., trying to persuade a faceless security guard—through locked doors, closed curtains and a small speaker—to accept a hand-drawn birthday card to deliver to him in prison. Their quest ended in vain. For the Yang family, this experience was a sad illustration of the opaque approach that the Chinese authorities have taken in his case.

I first met Jianli over six years ago when we were students together at the Kennedy School of Government. Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin was scheduled to speak on campus, and we met at the meeting of many Harvard students who were going to organize the protests against his visit. When President Jiang spoke on Nov. 1, 1997, it was the largest protest Harvard had seen since the Vietnam War, with over 4,000 protesters. Jianli spoke eloquently to the crowd about his love for China and what he witnessed in Tiananmen Square.

For me, this protest was a life-changing event. It inspired me to go to law school and study human rights. While my interests had strayed from China over the years, I could hardly have imagined that my work would come full circle.

Over 19 months ago, Jianli, who had been blacklisted by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after Tiananmen Square, made a fateful decision to return to his country. He heard about the labor unrest in northeastern China and wanted to observe it for himself. After the PRC detained him on April 26, 2002, it had the opportunity to press what could have been a routine case against him for illegal entry. Instead, by systematically and harshly violating Jianli’s human rights and subsequently charging him with espionage, the PRC transformed his case into an international cause celebre and an ongoing irritant in U.S.-China relations. How could this happen?

During his first year of detention, in violation of both Chinese and international law, Yang Jianli was held incommunicado and in solitary confinement, denied access to counsel, family and all reading materials and was interrogated by PRC authorities over 100 times. Despite the lack of transparency in the Chinese judicial process, it was clear to the outside world that the PRC had presumed him guilty and was punishing him before even putting him on trial.

This past June, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Yang was being held in violation of international law. Seemingly oblivious to international opinion and lacking all credibility, the PRC indignantly insisted it was meticulously complying with its own and international law. This statement earned a swift rebuke from the U.S. State Department, which immediately called for Yang’s release. Shortly thereafter, Congressional resolutions calling for Yang’s release passed unanimously in both the House and Senate. Along the way, Jianli has received significant support from University President Lawrence H. Summers, Ramsey Professor of Political Economy Richard J. Zeckhauser—his his former dissertation advisor at the Kennedy School—and numerous other members of the faculty and staff. With this international outcry, Jianli was finally given access to counsel.

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Jianli was put on trial in China on Aug. 4, 2003, in the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court. Despite PRC commitments to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that it would issue a verdict within one month, he continues to wait for the judgment. That Jianli will eventually be convicted is not, however, in doubt. The conviction rate is close to 100 percent for political cases that go to trial in China.

At best, Chinese courts are weak and unreliable institutions, despite increasingly successful efforts to improve their quality. In politically sensitive criminal cases the courts simply take orders from Communist Party and government leaders.

That is why it is particularly ironic and yet quite timely that Premier Wen Jiabao would choose to visit Harvard University while China continues to detain one of its graduates in violation of international law. Nevertheless, we should welcome Premier Wen to campus and to the United States. My best hope is that the Harvard community will take this opportunity to ask him the question that we would dare not ask him in China: when are you going to free Yang Jianli?

Jared Genser is president of Freedom Now, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that works to free prisoners of conscience. He is a legal advisor to Yang’s family.

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