PEN America, along with the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, filed a complaint today before the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of detained Chinese civil rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong.

Xu is a civil rights lawyer and essayist who has been a leading figure in China’s civil rights movements over the past several decades. He was detained in February, after going into hiding following reports that several of his colleagues had been arrested. While in hiding, Xu published the essay “Dear Chairman Xi, It’s Time For You To Go,” which criticized the government’s response to the coronavirus and urged Xi to step down. Xu currently faces charges of “inciting subversion,” a charge that carries up to fifteen years imprisonment. He has been held in incommunicado detention since February.

“Xu Zhiyong has been shut off from the outside world for months, and no one has been able to verify whether he is being treated humanely or whether he is being subjected to torture in an effort to coerce a confession,” said James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy. “All this, for the ‘crime’ of expressing his political opinions. This case has all the hallmarks of arbitrary detention. We will continue to advocate for Xu until he is released, and we continue to call upon the Chinese government to drop these abusive and politically-motivated charges against him.” 

In June, PEN America announced Xu Zhiyong as its 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award recipient. The award is given yearly to an imprisoned writer who has been targeted for exercising their freedom of expression. The award will be formally conveyed December 8 as part of PEN America’s 2020 virtual gala celebration.

The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which co-sponsored the submission, is an international Montreal-based NGO inspired by the legacy of Swedish humanitarian Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. Yonah Diamond, legal counsel for the Centre, said “As the pandemic was breaking out in China, the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, escalated its crackdown on the free flow of information just when society, and the international community, needed it most. The case of legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, who disappeared along with a number of fellow civil society leaders at the time and is now facing 15 years in prison for basic political commentary, is emblematic of this rising repression.”

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention is a UN body of human rights experts engaged on the issue of arbitrary detention. As part of their mandate, the group reviews individual complaints on behalf of individuals alleged to be arbitrarily detained, raising their case with the host government and making case determinations. This is not the first communication to the Working Group on Xu’s case: the human rights organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders filed a submission on Xu’s behalf before the Working Group and other UN experts in March.