Thursday, January 31, 2008

Hu Jia Formally Arrested: Human Rights in Olympic Spotlight

News has just emerged of the formal arrest of Beijing rights activist Hu Jia (胡佳) on charges of "inciting subversion." Hu was taken into police custody on December 27, 2007, following a raid on his home.

Members of Hu's family were reportedly served with a notice of the arrest approval on January 30, 2008. Specific charges against Hu Jia have not been made public. For several years, however, he has been publicly active on behalf of victims of injustice, during which he has maintained close communication with dissidents, petitioners, and rights lawyers and used the Internet to serve as an invaluable source of information about human rights abuses throughout China. This work has led to several previous run-ins with political security police, including a 41-day incommunicado detention in the spring of 2006 and more than 200 days of informal house arrest that preceded his detention in December. Hu and his wife Zeng Jinyan, also an activist, were prevented from traveling to Europe in May 2007 on the grounds that they were suspected of "endangering state security." (Since Hu's detention over a month ago, Zeng and their infant daughter have been prevented by police from leaving their apartment or receiving visitors, and virtually all communication ties have been severed.)

Under China's criminal procedure law, approval for "formal arrest" (正式逮捕) is granted to police by prosecutors upon consideration of evidence obtained during the preliminary period of criminal detention, which can last up to one month. After formal arrest is approved, police have two months to continue their investigation before being required to hand the case over to the procuratorate for prosecution. However, other legal provisions allow for police to request up to five additional months for investigation of complex cases in which the defendant faces 10 years or more in prison.

Hu's case has been formally classified as a "state secret," meaning that he has no right to meet with his defense attorney until after the case has been handed over to the procuratorate for prosecution—which, given the procedural regulations described above, could happen as late as seven months from now. The state secrecy classification also means that, assuming Hu's case goes to trial, the court will be required by law to bar all members of the public from attending all court proceedings other than the final verdict announcement.

One month before his arrest, Hu spoke via an Internet connection to a committee of the European Parliament, during which he is reported to have offered criticism of China's human rights record and the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. Whether or not these criticisms triggered his arrest, it is clear that the action taken against Hu Jia cannot escape being connected to the Olympics. From the perspective of the authorities, the opportunity to take this high-profile rights activist out of action in the final months before the Olympics may have been too good to pass up. By the same token, however, the arrest of such a prominent activist who maintained close connections to the international community creates a huge image problem for the Chinese government, as Hu Jia is likely to remain behind bars through the Olympic Games—possibly without even having a chance to see a lawyer. In his absence, Hu thereby becomes a leading symbol of China's human rights problems, a subject Beijing would rather the world not think about in connection with the Olympics.