UN Rules China Must Free Jailed Human Rights Activist Zhang Baocheng Who Defended Uyghurs

GENEVA, April 25, 2022  — The Swiss non-governmental human rights group United Nations Watch announced today that Chinese human rights activist Zhang Baocheng, a leader of the New Citizens’ Movement, has won a UN ruling that international law mandates his immediate release.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a quasi-judicial panel of five experts, upheld in full a 23-page petition filed by UN Watch in cooperation with Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a Washington-based organization headed by former political prisoner Yang Jianli.

The UN panel determined that China is “arbitrarily detaining” dissident Zhang Baocheng, who has been imprisoned by the regime since May 27, 2019 for criticizing the Chinese government’s crimes against the Uighurs in Xinjiang, and for his providing aid to another dissident.

In its Opinion no. 54/2021, the Working Group found that China arrested Mr. Zhang without a legal basis. The UN panel called on China to immediately release Mr. Zhang and grant him reparations, and to conduct a full and independent investigation of the circumstances that led to Mr. Zhang’s arbitrary detention.

The Working Group found that “the deprivation of liberty of Mr. Zhang is arbitrary,” noting specifically that it contravened the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees on the right to be free from arbitrary arrest, the right to a fair trial, the right to presumption of innocence, freedom expression, and freedom of association.

An independent and impartial UN body, the Working Group consists of experts from Australia, Latvia, Ecuador, Zambia and Malaysia.

China submitted its response two months after the deadline, failing to file a simple request for an extension. The UN Working Group therefore refused to accept it.

In reaching its decision, the Working Group upheld in full the legal arguments made by UN Watch, and rejected all of China’s prior justifications for its imprisonment of Zhang.

Comment By UN Watch

“This is an important ruling for jailed human rights activist Zhang Baocheng coming from a central mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council,” said UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer. “As a member of the council, China is duty-bound to respect and implement its rulings.”

“We now call on Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, to raise the case of Mr. Zhang ahead of her trip next month to China and to demand his immediate release.”

“Bachelet should urge the Chinese government to stop its systematic suppression of freedom and put an end to punishing political dissent with arbitrary arrests, beatings and harassment of activists and their families,” said Neuer.

“Now that the Working Group has found that China’s treatment of dissident Zhang Baocheng violated his basic human rights under international law, we call on Chinese authorities to honor the UN ruling and to immediately release Mr. Zhang.”

In addition to its petition for Zhang Baocheng, a UN Watch written statement about its complaint was published by the United Nations as document A/HRC/44/NGO/11 and circulated as an official document of the 44th Session of the Human Rights Council.

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Highlights of the Working Group’s decision are as follows.

Concerning the legal basis for Zhang’s arrest, the Working Group concluded (at Paras 57-68):

In the present case, Mr. Zhang was charged under two vague and imprecise offences: picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and “promoting terrorism and extremism and inciting terrorist attacks”. The Working Group considers that the charges against Mr. Zhang “are so vague and broad that they could be used to deprive individuals of their liberty without a specific legal basis.” As the Working Group has previously stated, the principle of legality requires that laws be formulated with sufficient precision so that the individual can access and understand the law, and regulate his or her conduct accordingly.

The Working Group recommended that those crimes be defined in precise terms and that legislative measures be taken to introduce an exemption from criminal responsibility for those who peacefully exercise their rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Working Group considers that, in the present case, the laws used to charge the detainees were so vague and overly broad that it was impossible to invoke a legal basis justifying the deprivation of liberty.

Noting all the above, the Working Group therefore concludes that the arrest and subsequent detention of Mr. Zhang, was arbitrary and falls under category I as lacking legal basis in breach of article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Concerning the violation of Zhang’s rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, the Working Group concluded (at Paras 69-76):

The Working Group finds that the situation in the present case falls short of such requirement. Aside from the vague accusations of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, the Working Group has not seen information that would reasonably implicate Mr. Zhang in specific violent or criminal acts that pose threats to the rights and freedoms of others, morality, public order and the general welfare. The Working Group notes the source’s submission that the only prosecution evidence against Mr. Zhang during his trial was his tweets about re-education camps for Uighurs and interrogation records of how he accommodated a family member of an imprisoned activist. As such, the Working Group finds no legitimate aim or objective to justify his deprivation of liberty for his exercise of freedom of expression and association.

The Working Group concludes that the detention of Mr. Zhang, resulted from his peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and association, and as such was contrary to articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the present case, the application of vague and overly broad provisions as discussed above adds weight to the Working Group’s conclusion that Mr. Zhang’s deprivation of liberty falls within category II.

Concerning the violation of Zhang’s due process rights, the Working Group concluded (at Paras 77-83):

The Working Group finds that Mr. Zhang’s right to legal assistance at all times was not respected as he was denied access to counsel for several weeks. The right to legal assistance is inherent in the right to liberty and security of person as well as in the right to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law, in accordance with articles 3, 9, 10 and 11 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Working Group considers that this violation substantially undermined and compromised Mr. Zhang’s capacity to defend himself in any subsequent judicial proceedings.

The Working Group is satisfied that the source has established that Mr. Zhang’s trial did not meet the standards of a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in violation of article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Concerning the targeting of Zhang as a human rights defender, the Working Group concluded (at Paras 84-85):

The Working Group has determined that detaining individuals on the basis of their activities as human rights defenders violates their right to equality before the law and equal protection of the law under article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Accordingly, the Working Group finds that Mr. Zhang was deprived of his liberty on discriminatory grounds, that is, due to his status as a human rights defender, as well as on the basis of his political or other opinions. This amounts to a violation of articles 2 and 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His deprivation of liberty is thus arbitrary and falls within category V.

UN Watch