Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
In December 2020, State Police shot and killed a man in Tirana who was violating a COVID-19 curfew. The officer who shot him was arrested, tried, and convicted for the killing. The minister of internal affairs resigned following protests in response to the killing. There were no other reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Civilian law enforcement agencies such as the State Police investigated whether civilian security force killings were justifiable and pursued prosecutions for civilian agencies. Military law enforcement conducted investigations of killings by the armed forces.
The Office of the Ombudsman reported that the high number of persons taken into custody by police resulted in overcrowding of detention facilities. For example, on December 9 and 13, police temporarily detained 357 persons, 126 of them minors, during street protests following the December 20 police shooting death of the unarmed man in Tirana breaking COVID curfew.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
While the constitution and law prohibit such actions, there were allegations that police sometimes abused suspects and prisoners. For example, the Albanian Helsinki Committee (AHC) reported a case of physical abuse of a minor while in police detention. Medical staff did not report the corroborating physical examination showing bruising to the head and arm to the prosecutor’s office. Responding to the incident, the general director of police mandated training focused on criminal procedural rights of juveniles.
Prisoners engaged in hunger strikes on several occasions in 2020 to protest COVID restrictions limiting contacts with outside visitors, new legislation tightening prisoner privileges in high-security regimes, and allegations of corruption related to the quality of food, and access to medicine.
The Ministry of Interior’s Service for Internal Affairs and Complaints (SIAC) received complaints of police abuse and corruption that led to investigations of police actions. The Office of the Ombudsman, an independent, constitutional entity that serves as a watchdog over the government, reported that most cases of alleged physical or psychological abuse during the year occurred during arrest and interrogation, especially in cases of public protest.
The government made greater efforts to address police impunity, most notably in the single case of excessive use of deadly force. The SIAC recorded an increase in the number of investigations, prosecutions, and sanctions against officers for criminal and administrative violations. The December 2020 deadly police shooting of a COVID curfew violator who fled arrest led to widespread protests, some violent. The officer involved was arrested soon after the shooting and was convicted of homicide in July, receiving a 10-year prison sentence, reduced from 15 years due to his guilty plea.
The law and constitution prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these prohibitions.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, political pressure, intimidation, corruption, and limited resources prevented the judiciary from functioning fully, independently, and efficiently. Court hearings were generally open to the public unless COVID-19 restrictions did not allow for journalists or the public to enter court premises. In such cases, media submitted complaints to the court, which reviewed them on a case-by-case basis and generally allowed journalists and the public to attend hearings if the case was of interest to the general public.
The government continued to implement an internationally monitored process to vet judges and prosecutors and dismiss those with unexplained wealth or ties to organized crime. As of September, 42 percent of the judges and prosecutors vetted had failed and been dismissed, 36 percent passed, and 22 percent resigned or retired. During the year the number of vetted Supreme Court judges grew to fill nine of the 19 seats on the court. Assignments of vetted judges were sufficient to establish administrative, civil, and penal colleges and allow courts to begin adjudicating cases. The Supreme Court, however, must have at least 10 judges to be able to elect the remaining three Constitutional Court judges. As of July 31, the Supreme Court had a backlog of 36,608 cases pending adjudication.
The politicization of past appointments to the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court at times threatened to undermine the independence and integrity of these institutions.
The implementation of justice reform provisions led to a pause in normal disciplinary processes while the country established independent disciplinary bodies. From January through September 8, the country’s High Justice Inspectorate received 875 complaints that resulted in the issuance of 740 decisions on archiving and 120 decisions on the verifications of complaints. It also administered 24 disciplinary investigations, nine of which were carried over from the previous Inspectorate at the High Judicial Council. The High Justice Inspectorate also submitted nine requests for disciplinary proceedings against magistrates to the High Judicial Council and High Prosecutorial Council.
The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay. The law presumes defendants to be innocent until proven guilty. It provides for defendants to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them, with free interpretation as necessary. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial and to consult an attorney. If they cannot afford one, an attorney is to be provided at public expense. The law provides defendants adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and access to interpretation free of charge. Defendants have the right to confront witnesses against them and to present witnesses and evidence in their defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Defendants have the right to appeal. The government generally respected these rights, although trials were not always public and access to an attorney was at times problematic. To protect the rights of defendants and their access to the evidence against them, a prosecutor must petition a preliminary hearing judge and make a request to send the case to trial.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
While individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations, instances of judicial corruption, inefficiency, intimidation, and political tempering were reported. Courts took steps to address the problem by using audio-recording equipment. Despite having a statutory right to free legal aid in civil cases, NGOs reported that very few individuals benefitted from such aid during the year. To address the problem, the Ministry of Justice established the Free Legal Aid Directorate, law clinics at state universities, an online platform during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a telephone line to request free legal aid. The ongoing vetting process and legal mechanisms put in place by the high justice inspector to regulate the disciplining of judges also aimed to mitigate such problems.
Claimants who had exhausted remedies in domestic courts could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In many cases, authorities did not enforce ECHR rulings. The Office of the Ombudsman expressed concern about the country’s low rate of compliance with judicial decisions and its failure to execute the final rulings of courts and the ECHR. The ombudsman cited the state attorney’s reporting that millions of euros in compensation had yet to be paid by the government to successful complainants.
Persons who were political prisoners under the former communist regime continued to petition the government for compensation. The government did not make progress on disbursing compensation during the year. The Institute for Activism and Social Change and the Authority for Information on Former State Security (Sigurimi) Files raised concerns regarding unresolved missing persons cases dating from the former communist regime.
Property Seizure and Restitution
The Office of the Ombudsman and NGOs reported that property rights remained problematic, particularly the prolonged compensation process and low levels of compensation for expropriated property. Thousands of claims for private and religious property confiscated during the communist era remained unresolved with the Agency for the Treatment of Property and were sent back to the claimants to pursue their cases in court. Claimants may appeal to the ECHR after exhausting domestic legal recourse, and many cases were pending ECHR review. The ombudsman reported that as of March, more than 66 cases against the state were before the ECHR, involving millions of euros in claims. The ombudsman reported that the government owed millions of euros for judgements since 2015. The ombudsman reported that because of the ECHR judgement in the 2018 case Sharxhi et al vs. Albania, among others, the government owed more than 13.4 million euros ($15.4 million) to plaintiffs. The ombudsman and the AHC alleged that the Cadaster Office was unresponsive to inquiries, hampering administrative investigations of property rights. In December the government announced a two-year project to digitize all property archives, enabling online access.
The country endorsed the Terezin Declaration in 2009 and the Guidelines and Best Practices in 2010. It does not have any restitution or compensation laws relating to Holocaust-era confiscation of private property. Under the law, religious communities have the same restitution and compensation rights as natural or legal persons. The government reported no property claims had been submitted by victims of the Holocaust.
The Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act report to Congress, released publicly in July 2020, can be found on the Department’s website at: https://www.state.gov/reports/just-act-report-to-congress/.
The constitution and laws prohibit arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, but there were reports that the government failed to respect those prohibitions. During the year’s parliamentary election campaign, it emerged that a database with the personal information and contact details of approximately 900,000 citizens as well as their likely voter preferences, leaked into the public domain, potentially making voters vulnerable to pressure. A criminal investigation was launched by the Specialized Anticorruption Body (SPAK).
China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet)
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were numerous reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In many instances few or no details were available. In an April 21 report, Amnesty International declared the country executed potentially thousands of individuals in 2020.
In Xinjiang there were reports of custodial deaths related to detentions in the internment camps. There were multiple reports from Uyghur family members who discovered their relatives had died while in internment camps or within weeks of their release. In January, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported the 82-year-old Uyghur poet Haji Mirzahid Kerimi died in prison while serving an 11-year sentence for writing books that were later blacklisted. According to RFA, Kerimi was arrested in 2017 as part of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) campaign to censor “dangerous” literature. RFA also reported Kurbanjan Abdukerim died in February shortly after his release from an internment camp. During the three years of his detainment, Abdukerim family reported he had lost more than 100 pounds and that the cause of his death was unknown.
Disappearances through multiple means continued at a nationwide, systemic scale.
The primary means by which authorities disappeared individuals for sustained periods of time is known as “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location” (RSDL). RSDL codifies in law the longstanding practice of the detention and removal from the public eye of individuals the state deems a risk to national security or intends to use as hostages. The primary disappearance mechanism for public functionaries is known as liuzhi. Per numerous reports, individuals disappeared by RSDL and liuzhi were subject to numerous abuses including but not limited to physical and psychological abuse, humiliation, rape, torture, starvation, isolation, and forced confessions.
The government conducted mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim and ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) alleged these detentions amounted to enforced disappearance, since families were often not provided information concerning the length or location of the detention.
Amnesty International reported in April that Ekpar Asat, also known as Aikebaier Aisaiti, a Uyghur journalist and entrepreneur, had been held in solitary confinement since 2019 in Aksu Prefecture. He was reportedly detained in Xinjiang in 2016 shortly after participating in a program in the United States and subsequently sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.
In July officials at Tongji University in Shanghai confirmed that Uyghur research scientist Tursunjan Nurmamat had been detained after Nurmamat suddenly went silent on social media in April. Further details on Nurmamat’s case and whereabouts were unknown.
Professional tennis player Peng Shuai disappeared from public view for approximately three weeks after her November 2 accusation on social media that former Politburo Standing Committee member and vice premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her. Her reappearance, via what appeared to be tightly controlled and staged video clips, raised concerns that authorities were controlling her movement and speech (see section 6, Women).
Former lawyer Tang Jitian, a long-time advocate for Chinese citizens, has been held incommunicado since December 10, reportedly in connection with his plans to attend Human Rights Day events in Beijing. Subsequently there were reports that authorities had sent a video to his former wife telling his family to remain quiet.
In 2020, four citizen journalists disappeared from public view after authorities in Wuhan took them into custody. Chen Qiushi, Li Zehua (who was released after two months in April 2020), Zhang Zhan, and Fang Bin had interviewed health-care professionals and citizens and later publicized their accounts on social media during the initial COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown in Wuhan. Media reported November 24 that Fang Bin was in custody in Wuhan, the first news of his location since his arrest in February 2020. On September 30, Chen Qiushi appeared on social media but said he could not talk about what happened to him. In November according to reports from her family and lawyer in media, Zhang Zhan, who had been sentenced in December 2020 to four years’ imprisonment, remained in detention and has been on an intermittent hunger strike.
The government still had not provided a comprehensive, credible accounting of all those killed, missing, or detained in connection with the violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. Many activists who were involved in the 1989 demonstrations and their family members continued to suffer official harassment. The government made no efforts to prevent, investigate, or punish such harassment.
The law prohibits the physical abuse and mistreatment of detainees and forbids prison guards from coercing confessions, insulting prisoners’ dignity, and beating or encouraging others to beat prisoners. The law excludes evidence obtained through illegal means, including coerced confessions, in certain categories of criminal cases. There were credible reports that authorities routinely ignored prohibitions against torture, especially in politically sensitive cases.
Numerous former prisoners and detainees reported they were beaten, raped, subjected to electric shock, forced to sit on stools for hours on end, hung by the wrists, deprived of sleep, force-fed, forced to take medication against their will, and otherwise subjected to physical and psychological abuse. Although prison authorities abused ordinary prisoners, they reportedly singled out political and religious dissidents for particularly harsh treatment.
Zhang Zhan, sentenced to four years’ imprisonment in December 2020 for her activities as a citizen journalist during the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, was not allowed family visits by Shanghai prison authorities. When Zhang went on a hunger strike, prison officials force-fed her, tying and chaining her arms, torso, and feet.
In August after 21 months in detention, human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi was indicted. Ding was detained in 2019 on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” for participating in a meeting in Xiamen, Fujian Province, to organize civil society activities and peaceful resistance to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. Ding’s wife posted on Twitter that Ding was tortured in a detention center in Beijing, including being subjected to sleep deprivation tactics such as shining a spotlight on him 24 hours per day.
On March 22, Zhang Wuzhou was sentenced to two years and nine months in prison for “obstructing official duty, provoking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” Following her arrest in June 2020, Zhang was tortured in the Qingxin District Detention Center in Qingyuan (Guangdong Province), according to her lawyer’s July 2020 account as reported by Radio Free Asia. Zhang said that detention center authorities handcuffed her, made her wear heavy foot shackles, and placed her in a cell where other inmates beat her. The Qingyuan Public Security Bureau detained Zhang on charges of “provoking quarrels and stirring up troubles” two days after she held banners at Guangzhou Baiyun Mountains to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.
As of November human rights activist and lawyer Yu Wensheng remained in a Nanjing prison serving a four-year sentence. In April he was treated in a hospital for nerve damage from an unknown incident suffered in prison. He was convicted in June 2020 for “inciting subversion of state power” and was held incommunicado for 18 months before and after his conviction. Yu reported he was repeatedly sprayed with pepper spray and was forced into a stress position for an extended period.
As of November human rights lawyer Chang Weiping, who was reportedly tortured while in RSDL, was still in pretrial detention. Chang, known for his successful representation of HIV and AIDS discrimination cases, was detained in October 2020 after posting a video to YouTube detailing torture he suffered during a January 2020 round of RSDL.
In December 2020 Niu Tengyu was sentenced to a 14-year jail term by the Maonan District People’s Court in Guangdong for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” “violating others’ privacy,” and “running an illegal business” in a case that has been linked to the leak of the personal information of President Xi’s daughter. According to RFA, Niu’s lawyers alleged that prior to the trial, Niu was stripped, suspended from the ceiling, and his genitals burned with a lighter. They also alleged he was beaten so badly that he lost use of his right hand.
Members of the minority Uyghur ethnic group reported systematic torture and other degrading treatment by law enforcement officers and officials working within the penal system and the internment camps. Survivors stated that authorities subjected individuals in custody to electric shock, waterboarding, beatings, rape, forced sterilization, forced prostitution, stress positions, forced administration of unknown medication, and cold cells (see section 6, Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination). In an October report on CNN, a former PRC police detective now living in Europe who had multiple tours of duty in Xinjiang confirmed many of these specific allegations in what he described as a systematic campaign of torture.
In March, Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy released a comprehensive assessment of the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang to examine “whether China bears State responsibility for breaches of Article II of the Genocide Convention, in particular, whether China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs as defined by Article II of the Convention.” The report included contributions of more than 30 scholars and researchers and found that the PRC has implemented a campaign designed to eliminate Uyghurs, in whole or in part. The report stated, “[h]igh-level officials gave orders to ‘round up everyone who should be rounded up,’ ‘wipe them out completely,’ ‘break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.’” The report noted the PRC has also pursued a “dual systematic campaign of forcibly sterilizing Uyghur women of childbearing age and interning Uyghur men of child-bearing years, preventing the regenerative capacity of the group.”
In June, Amnesty International released a report that documented the accounts of more than 50 former detainees regarding the torture, mistreatment, and violence inflicted on them in camps in Xinjiang. The report detailed the systematic use of detainment and “re-education” centers to target Uyghurs and members of other ethnic minorities living in Xinjiang. The report concluded, “according to the evidence Amnesty International has gathered, corroborated by other reliable sources, members of the predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have been subjected to an attack meeting all the contextual elements of crimes against humanity.” Further, it elaborated on violence and detention stating, “Amnesty International believes the evidence it has collected provides a factual basis for the conclusion that the Chinese government has committed at least the following crimes against humanity: imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law; torture; and persecution.”
The treatment and abuse of detainees under the liuzhi detention system, which operates outside the judicial system as a legal tool for the government and the CCP to investigate corruption and other offenses, featured custodial treatment such as extended solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, beatings, and forced standing or sitting in uncomfortable positions for hours and sometimes days, according to press reports.
The law states psychiatric treatment and hospitalization should be “on a voluntary basis,” but the law also allows authorities and family members to commit persons to psychiatric facilities against their will and fails to provide meaningful legal protections for persons sent to psychiatric facilities. The law does not provide for the right to a lawyer and restricts a person’s right to communicate with those outside the psychiatric institution.
Official media reported the Ministry of Public Security directly administered 23 psychiatric hospitals for the criminally insane. While many of those committed to mental health facilities were convicted of murder and other violent crimes, there were also reports of activists, religious or spiritual adherents, and petitioners involuntarily subjected to psychiatric treatment for political reasons. Public security officials may commit individuals to psychiatric facilities and force treatment for “conditions” that have no basis in psychiatry.
Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces, including the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, and the Ministry of Justice, which manages the prison system.
Arbitrary arrest and detention remained systemic. The law grants public security officers broad administrative detention powers and the ability to detain individuals for extended periods without formal arrest or criminal charges. Lawyers, human rights activists, journalists, religious leaders and adherents, and former political prisoners and their family members continued to be targeted for arbitrary detention or arrest. (See section 1.b., Disappearance, for a description of RSDL and liuzhi.)
The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government generally did not observe this requirement.
There were allegations of detainee abuse and torture in the official detention system, known as liuzhi, of the National Supervisory Commission-Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (NSC-CCDI; see section 4). Liuzhi detainees are held incommunicado and have no recourse to appeal their detention. While detainee abuse is proscribed by the law, the mechanism for detainees to report abuse was unclear.
On March 14, Li Qiaochu was arrested for her human rights advocacy and involvement with fellow activists involved in the nationwide crackdown of lawyers and activists who participated in 2019 meetings in Xiamen, Fujian. Her first visit with her lawyer was on August 27, who reported that her mental health had deteriorated. At year’s end she was still detained in Shandong Province on suspicion of “subverting state power.”
On October 1, more than 170 Uyghurs in Hotan, Xinjiang, were detained by the National Security Agency of Hotan on the country’s national day, according to Radio Free Asia. They were accused of displaying feelings of resistance to the country during flag-raising activities. Among those detained were at least 40 women and 19 minors.
On September 19, journalist Sophia Huang and activist Wang Jianbing were detained in Guangzhou, according to the rights group Weiquanwang (Rights Protection Network). Huang had planned to leave China via Hong Kong on September 20 for the United Kingdom, where she intended to pursue graduate studies. Media reported that both were being held incommunicado under RSDL on suspicion of “incitement to subvert state power.” As of year’s end they remained detained in Guangzhou, and no one was allowed to see the pair.
In September, PRC authorities released Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from detention in China and allowed them to return to Canada, shortly following the release by Canadian authorities of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou. Kovrig and Spavor had been detained since December 2018, after the arrest in Canada of Meng. For months the two Canadian citizens were held in RSDL before being charged with a crime and were denied access to lawyers and consular services. Another Canadian, Robert Schellenberg, remained in detention as his sentence was reviewed. After Meng’s arrest, Schellenberg’s sentence for drug-smuggling crimes was increased from 15 years’ imprisonment to a death sentence.
There were no statistics available for the number of individuals in the liuzhi detention system nationwide. Several provinces, however, publicized these numbers, including Heilongjiang with 376 and Jilin with 275 detained, both in 2020. One provincial official heading the liuzhi detention system stated suspects averaged 42.5 days in detention before being transferred into the criminal justice system.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law states the courts shall exercise judicial power independently, without interference from administrative organs, social organizations, and individuals, the judiciary did not exercise judicial power independently. Judges regularly received political guidance on pending cases, including instructions on how to rule, from both the government and the CCP, particularly in politically sensitive cases. The CCP Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission have the authority to review and direct court operations at all levels of the judiciary. All judicial and procuratorate appointments require approval by the CCP Organization Department.
Corruption often influenced court decisions since safeguards against judicial corruption were vague and poorly enforced. Local governments appointed and paid local court judges and, as a result, often exerted influence over the rulings of those judges.
A CCP-controlled committee decided most major cases, and the duty of trial and appellate court judges was to craft a legal justification for the committee’s decision.
Courts are not authorized to rule on the constitutionality of legislation. The law permits organizations or individuals to question the constitutionality of laws and regulations, but a constitutional challenge may be directed only to the promulgating legislative body. Lawyers had little or no opportunity to rely on constitutional claims in litigation.
Media sources indicated public security authorities used televised confessions of lawyers, foreign and domestic bloggers, journalists, and business executives to establish guilt before their criminal trial proceedings began. In some cases these confessions were likely a precondition for release. NGOs asserted such statements were likely coerced, perhaps by torture, and some detainees who confessed recanted upon release and confirmed their confessions had been coerced. No provision in the law allows the pretrial broadcast of confessions by criminal suspects.
In February, United Kingdom media regulator Ofcom cancelled the broadcast license of China Global Television Network, the international news channel of China Central Television, for having insufficient editorial independence from the PRC government and the CCP. In July 2020 Ofcom found in its formal investigation that China Global Television Network broadcast in 2013 and 2014 a confession forced from a British private investigator imprisoned in China. “Judicial independence” remained one of the subjects the CCP reportedly ordered university professors not to discuss (see section 2.a., Academic Freedom and Cultural Events).
Although the law reaffirms the presumption of innocence, the criminal justice system remained biased toward a presumption of guilt, especially in high-profile or politically sensitive cases.
Courts often punished defendants who refused to acknowledge guilt with harsher sentences than those who confessed. The appeals process rarely reversed convictions, and it failed to provide sufficient avenues for review. Remedies for violations of defendants’ rights were inadequate.
Regulations of the Supreme People’s Court required trials to be open to the public, except in cases involving state secrets, privacy issues, minors, or – if requested by a party to the proceedings – commercial secrets. Authorities used the state secrets provision to keep politically sensitive proceedings closed to the public, sometimes even to family members, and to withhold a defendant’s access to defense counsel. Court regulations stipulate that foreigners with valid identification should be allowed to observe trials under the same criteria as citizens, but in practice foreigners were permitted to attend court proceedings only by invitation. As in past years, authorities barred foreign diplomats and journalists from attending several trials. In some instances authorities reclassified trials as “state secrets” cases or otherwise closed them to the public.
Regulations require the release of court judgments online and stipulate court officials should release judgments, except those involving state secrets and juvenile suspects, within seven days of their adoption. Courts did not post all judgments. They had wide discretion not to post if they found posting the judgment could be considered “inappropriate.” Many political cases did not have judgments posted.
Individuals facing administrative detention do not have the right to seek legal counsel. Criminal defendants are eligible for legal assistance, but the vast majority of criminal defendants went to trial without a lawyer.
Lawyers are required to be members of the CCP-controlled All-China Lawyers Association, and the Ministry of Justice requires all lawyers to pledge their loyalty to the leadership of the CCP upon issuance or annual renewal of their license to practice law. The CCP continued to require law firms with three or more party members to form a CCP unit within the firm.
Despite the government’s stated efforts to improve lawyers’ access to their clients, in 2017 the head of the All-China Lawyers Association told China Youth Daily that defense attorneys had taken part in less than 30 percent of criminal cases. In particular, human rights lawyers reported authorities did not permit them to defend certain clients or threatened them with punishment if they chose to do so. On November 21, China Change reported that more than 40 lawyers lost their license due to their human rights work since 2016. Some lawyers declined to represent defendants in politically sensitive cases, and such defendants frequently found it difficult to find an attorney. In some instances authorities prevented defendant-selected attorneys from taking the case and instead appointed their own attorney.
The government suspended or revoked the business licenses or law licenses of numerous lawyers who took on sensitive cases such as defending prodemocracy dissidents, house-church activists, Falun Gong practitioners, or government critics. Authorities used the annual licensing review process administered by the All-China Lawyers Association to withhold or delay the renewal of professional lawyers’ licenses. In October the association issued new guidelines that banned lawyers from speaking about cases publicly, including organizing press conferences and petitions, publishing open letters, or engaging in any public advocacy work.
Other government tactics to intimidate or otherwise pressure human rights lawyers included unlawful detention, vague “investigations” of legal offices, disbarment, harassment, physical intimidation, and denial of access to evidence and to clients.
On February 2, media reported that Ren Quanniu, a human rights lawyer based in Zhengzhou who represented activists and journalists, learned the Henan Provincial Judicial Department had revoked his license. In March judicial authorities in Zhengzhou informed the Henan Guidao Law Firm where Ren worked that it must shut down. Media further reported that in early July municipal authorities had blacklisted Ren and prohibited him from starting his own legal consultancy business.
In October the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice revoked Lin Qilei’s legal license on the basis that the law firm to which Lin belonged had been deregistered, despite multiple attempts by Lin to apply for registration. Lin’s firm, Beijing Ruikai Law Firm, had handled many cases on behalf of religious adherents and prodemocracy supporters.
On December 16, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice revoked Liang Xiaojun’s legal license, citing his social media posts that were critical of Marxism and referred to the Falun Gong as a religion. Liang represented many human rights defenders, activists, and other disbarred lawyers during his legal career.
The law governing the legal profession criminalizes attorneys’ actions that “insult, defame, or threaten judicial officers,” “do not heed the court’s admonition,” or “severely disrupt courtroom order.” The law also criminalizes disclosing client or case information to media outlets or using protests, media, or other means to influence court decisions. Violators face fines and up to three years in prison.
Regulations also stipulate detention center officials should either allow defense attorneys to meet suspects or defendants or explain why the meeting cannot be arranged at that time. The regulations specify that a meeting should be arranged within 48 hours. Procuratorates and courts should allow defense attorneys to access and read case files within three working days. The time and frequency of opportunities available for defense attorneys to read case files shall not be limited, according to the guidelines. In some sensitive cases, lawyers had no pretrial access to their clients, had limited time to review evidence, and were not allowed to communicate with defendants during trials. In contravention of the law, criminal defendants frequently were not assigned an attorney until a case was brought to court. The law stipulates the spoken and written language of criminal proceedings shall be conducted in the language common to the specific locality, with government interpreters providing language services for defendants not proficient in the local language. Observers noted trials were predominantly conducted in Mandarin Chinese, even in non-Mandarin-speaking areas, with interpreters provided for defendants who did not speak the language.
Mechanisms allowing defendants to confront their accusers were inadequate. Only a small percentage of trials reportedly involved witnesses. Judges retained significant discretion over whether live witness testimony was required or even allowed. In most criminal trials, prosecutors read witness statements, which neither the defendants nor their lawyers had an opportunity to rebut through cross-examination. Although the law states pretrial witness statements cannot serve as the sole basis for conviction, prosecutors relied heavily on such statements. Defense attorneys had no authority to compel witnesses to testify or to mandate discovery, although they could apply for access to government-held evidence relevant to their case.
Under the law lawyers are assigned to convicted prisoners on death row who cannot afford one during the review of their sentences.
In December 2020 the Shenzhen Yantian District People’s Court sentenced 10 Hong Kong activists to prison terms between seven months and three years for illegal border crossing. After the activists were captured by PRC authorities in August 2020, they were held incommunicado. Lawyers hired by their families were barred from meeting with the activists; the court only allowed state-appointed lawyers to be present during the closed-door trial.
In July, three members of the antidiscrimination NGO Changsha Funeng – Cheng Yuan, Liu Yongze, and Wu Gejianxiong, also known as the “Changsha Three” – were sentenced in a secret trial to two to five years in prison. Despite a legal requirement to do so, the sentences were not made public, and the families were informed through informal channels. Changsha Funeng had assisted in litigating cases to end discrimination against persons with disabilities and carriers of HIV and hepatitis B. Cheng Yuan had also worked on antitorture programs, litigation to end the country’s one-child policy, and reform for household registration laws.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
Government officials continued to deny holding any political prisoners, asserting persons were detained not for their political or religious views but because they had violated the law. Authorities, however, continued to imprison citizens for reasons related to politics and religion. Human rights organizations estimated tens of thousands of political prisoners remained incarcerated, most in prisons and some in administrative detention. The government did not grant international humanitarian organizations access to political prisoners. Government security forces continued to harass and intimidate former political prisoners and their family members.
In January media reported that family members of detained lawyer Chang Weiping experienced harassment. After the family protested in front of the Gaoxin branch of the Baoji Municipal Public Security Bureau, Chang’s parents were summoned for multiple rounds of interrogation. They found a closed-circuit television camera installed outside their home and had their mobile phones confiscated. Chang’s wife, Chen Zijuan, was visited by authorities multiple times, during which authorities warned her not to conduct public advocacy for her husband and pressured her to delete her social media posts regarding her husband.
On August 25, the South China Morning Post reported on the broad use of the crime “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” against journalists, activists, lawyers, and ordinary citizens to suppress free speech. In August, two activists, Chen Mei and Cai Wei, were convicted of the crime after archiving censored internet materials related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Authorities granted political prisoners early release at lower rates than other prisoners. Thousands of persons were serving sentences for political and religious offenses, including for “endangering state security” and carrying out “cult activities.” The government neither reviewed the cases of those charged before 1997 with counterrevolution and hooliganism nor released persons imprisoned for nonviolent offenses under repealed provisions.
Many political prisoners remained either in prison or under other forms of detention after release at year’s end, including writer Yang Maodong (pen name: Guo Feixiong); Uyghur scholars Ilham Tohti, Rahile Dawut, and Hushtar Isa, brother of Uyghur World Congress president Dolkun Isa; Tibetan Dorje Tashi; activists Wang Bingzhang, Chen Jianfang, and Huang Qi; Taiwan prodemocracy activist Lee Ming-Che; pastors Zhang Shaojie and Wang Yi; Falun Gong practitioner Bian Lichao; Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai Thaddeus Ma Daqin; rights lawyers Xia Lin, Gao Zhisheng, Xu Zhiyong, Li Yuhan, and Yu Wensheng; blogger Wu Gan; citizen journalist Zhang Zhan; Shanghai labor activist Jiang Cunde; and others.
Criminal punishments included “deprivation of political rights” for a fixed period after release from prison, during which an individual could be denied rights of free speech, association, and publication. Former prisoners reported their ability to find employment, travel, obtain residence permits and passports, rent residences, and access social services was severely restricted.
Authorities frequently subjected former political prisoners and their families to surveillance, telephone wiretaps, searches, and other forms of harassment or threats. For example, security personnel followed the family members of detained or imprisoned rights activists to meetings with foreign reporters and diplomats and urged the family members to remain silent regarding the cases of their relatives. Authorities barred certain members of the rights community from meeting with visiting dignitaries.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: Reports continued throughout the year regarding PRC pressure on Xinjiang-based relatives of persons located outside China who spoke publicly about the detentions and abusive policies underway inside Xinjiang. In June 2020 Kazakhstan media reported that Kazakh authorities temporarily detained Aqiqat Qaliolla and Zhenis Zarqyn for their protests in front of the PRC embassy regarding lost family members in Xinjiang “re-education” camps. In February, RFA reported based on official sources that Bakihaji Helil was sentenced in 2017 to nine years in prison after returning early from his religion studies at al-Azhar University in Egypt following Xinjiang authorities’ harassment of his family.
PRC media and authorities continued to harass and defame women who spoke about rape and sexual abuse in Xinjiang internment camps. Qelbinur Sedik, a Xinjiang camp teacher who fled China and now lives abroad, was repeatedly targeted by PRC media and received direct video messages from local Xinjiang police threatening reprisal against her family members still in Xinjiang. The BBC reported that Xinjiang police used social media to threaten Uyghurs living in Europe.
PRC state media also released videos of Xinjiang-based ethnic and religious minorities to discredit their overseas relatives’ accounts to foreign media. The persons in the videos urged their foreign-based family members to stop “spreading rumors” about Xinjiang. The overseas relatives said they had lost communication with their Xinjiang relatives until the videos were released.
In February, Hong Kong Free Press reported the PRC used “proof-of-life” videos to dispute or undermine claims of several foreign citizens about the disappearance and treatment of their relatives in China. For example the PRC published a video of Memet Tohti Atawulla’s brother who had disappeared during the PRC’s crackdown in Xinjiang. The PRC filmed the family of Sayragul Sauytbay, who since leaving China in 2018 has publicly criticized the PRC’s treatment of Kazakh persons and other Muslims in China, accusing Sayragul of “theft, deception, child abuse, and sexual immorality.” Similarly, Hong Kong Free Press reported “Kuzzat Altay’s father disowns him on camera” and “Zumrat Dawut’s brother suggests that her father’s death was due to her political activism.”
In March, Reuters reported PRC officials used press conferences to attack women abroad who provided eyewitness accounts of their experiences in Xinjiang internment camps. The report quoted a Xinjiang official publicly claiming, “Everyone knows about her inferior character. She’s lazy and likes comfort, her private life is chaotic, her neighbors say that she committed adultery while in China.” In May, Reuters reported PRC officials routinely harassed young Uyghur activists living abroad. Uyghurs faced threats from PRC hackers, intimidating phone calls, and bullying on social media.
Misuse of International Law-enforcement Tools: There were credible reports the PRC attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes as a reprisal against specific individuals located outside the country. On July 20, according to the Associated Press, Moroccan authorities arrested Uyghur activist Yidiresi Aishan in Casablanca based on an Interpol red notice (a request from a government for a person’s arrest). The South China Morning Post reported on August 2 that Interpol had rescinded the red notice for Aishan after advocacy groups raised concerns that the red notice system was being used to repatriate Uyghur dissidents back to China. Aishan had previously lived in Turkey where he was an active member of the Uyghur diaspora and an outspoken critic of the PRC. Aishan was still detained in Morocco at year’s end.
The NSC-CCDI led the PRC’s transnational fugitive recovery efforts, Operations Fox Hunt and Sky Net. Although these efforts ostensibly targeted economic crimes, media reported they were sometimes politically motivated and targeted dissidents who lived overseas. On February 24, state-sponsored CGTN reported that through “Sky Net 2021,” a total of 1,421 fugitives, including 28 red notice fugitives, were brought back to China in 2020.
Efforts to Control Mobility: The government pressured foreign countries to repatriate or deny visas to Uyghurs who had left China. COVID-19 measures, such as checkpoints, health-app restrictions, and COVID-19-related lockdowns restricted individuals’ freedom of movement.
In November lawyer Xie Yang attempted to visit imprisoned citizen journalist Zhang Zhan’s family but was warned by two police officers to not go. Shortly after, his COVID-19 health verification mobile phone app went from green to red, which effectively restricted his movement.
Bilateral Pressure: There were credible reports that for politically motivated purposes the PRC attempted to exert bilateral pressure on other countries aimed at having those countries take adverse action against specific individuals. In Kazakhstan, media reported that Kazakh authorities temporarily detained at least 10 protesters at the PRC embassy who were demanding the release of family members being held in Xinjiang “re-education” camps. In February a court in Kazakhstan sentenced Baibolat Kunbolatuly to 10 days in jail for staging protests outside the Chinese consulate to demand answers about his brother’s detention in Xinjiang. According to RFA on October 1 (the PRC’s national day), Kazakh police detained eight ethnic Kazakh protesters in Nur-Sultan who were demanding the release of relatives being held in Xinjiang.
On June 30, the Chinese Embassy in France sent a letter to the editorial office of French youth newspaper Mon Quotidien condemning its article regarding forced labor in Xinjiang. According to Radio Free Asia, the Chinese Embassy also circulated a petition calling for the withdrawal of the article.
The law states the “freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens are protected by law,” but authorities often did not respect the privacy of citizens. A new civil code entered into force on January 1, introducing articles on the right to privacy and personal information protection. Although the law requires warrants before officers can search premises, officials frequently ignored this requirement. The Public Security Bureau and prosecutors are authorized to issue search warrants on their own authority without judicial review. There continued to be reports of cases of forced entry by police officers.
Authorities routinely monitored telephone calls, text messages, faxes, email, instant messaging, social media apps, and other digital communications intended to remain private, particularly of political activists. Authorities also opened and censored domestic and international mail. Security services routinely monitored and entered residences and offices to gain access to computers, telephones, and fax machines. Foreign journalists leaving the country found some of their personal belongings searched. In some cases, when material deemed politically sensitive was uncovered, the journalists had to sign a statement stating they would “voluntarily” leave these documents in the country.
According to Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch, a website focusing on human rights in China, Lin Xiaohua began appealing the bribery conviction of his older brother Lin Xiaonan, the former mayor of Fu’an City, Fujian Province, who in April was sentenced to 10 years and six months in prison. In June 2020 Xiaohua tried to send petition letters and case files to the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the Supreme People’s Court, and the National Commission of Supervision-CCP Central Discipline Inspection Commission, but the post office opened all the letters then refused to deliver them. In July 2020 the Xiamen Culture and Tourism Administration confiscated the letters and files, stating they were “illegal publications.”
According to Freedom House, rapid advances in surveillance technology – including artificial intelligence, facial recognition, and intrusive surveillance apps – coupled with growing police access to user data helped facilitate the prosecution of prominent dissidents as well as ordinary users. A Carnegie Endowment report in 2019 noted the country was a major worldwide supplier of artificial-intelligence surveillance technology, such as facial recognition systems, surveillance cameras, and smart policing technology.
According to media reports, the Ministry of Public Security used tens of millions of surveillance cameras throughout the country to monitor the general public. Human rights groups stated authorities increasingly relied on the cameras and other forms of surveillance to monitor and intimidate political dissidents, religious leaders and adherents, Tibetans, and Uyghurs. These included facial recognition and “gait recognition” video surveillance, allowing police not only to monitor a situation but also to quickly identify individuals in crowds. In May the BBC reported Chinese technology companies had developed artificial intelligence, surveillance, and other technological capabilities to help police identify members of ethnic minorities, especially Uyghurs. The media sources cited public-facing websites, company documents, and programming language from firms such as Huawei, Megvii, and Hikvision related to their development of a “Uyghur alarm” that could alert police automatically. Huawei denied its products were designed to identify ethnic groups. The monitoring and disruption of telephone and internet communications were particularly widespread in Xinjiang and Tibetan areas. The government installed surveillance cameras in monasteries in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan areas outside the TAR (see Special Annex, Tibet). The law allows security agencies to cut communication networks during “major security incidents.” Government entities collected genetic data from residents in Xinjiang with unclear protections for sensitive health data.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of State Security partnered with information technology firms to operate a “mass automated voice recognition and monitoring system,” similar to ones already in use in Xinjiang and Anhui, to help solve criminal cases. According to one company involved, the system monitored Mandarin Chinese and certain minority languages, including Tibetan and Uyghur. In many cases other biometric data such as fingerprints and DNA profiles were being stored as well. This database included information obtained not just from criminals and criminal suspects but also from entire populations of migrant workers and all Uyghurs applying for passports. Some Xinjiang internment camp survivors reported that they were subjected to coerced comprehensive health screenings including blood and DNA testing upon entering the internment camps. There were also reports from former detainees that authorities forced Uyghur detainees to undergo medical examinations of thoracic and abdominal organs.
Forced relocation because of urban development continued in some locations. Protests over relocation terms or compensation were common, and authorities prosecuted some protest leaders. In rural areas, infrastructure and commercial development projects resulted in the forced relocation of thousands of persons.
Property-related disputes between citizens and government authorities sometimes turned violent. These disputes frequently stemmed from local officials’ collusion with property developers to pay little or no compensation to displaced residents, a lack of effective government oversight or media scrutiny of local officials’ involvement in property transactions, and a lack of legal remedies or other dispute resolution mechanisms for displaced residents. The problem persisted despite central government claims it had imposed stronger controls over illegal land seizures and taken steps to standardize compensation.
Government authorities also could interfere in families’ living arrangements when a family member was involved in perceived sensitive political activities.
The government at various levels and jurisdictions continued to implement two distinct types of social credit systems. The first, the corporate social credit system, is intended to track and prevent corporate malfeasance. The second, the personal social credit system, is implemented differently depending on geographic location.
Although the government’s goal was to create a unified government social credit system, there continued to be dozens of disparate social credit systems, operated distinctly at the local, provincial, and the national government levels, as well as separate “private” social credit systems operated by several technology companies. These systems collected vast amounts of data from companies and individuals in an effort to address deficiencies in “social trust,” strengthen access to financial credit instruments, and reduce corruption. These agencies often collected information on academic records, traffic violations, social media presence, friendships, adherence to birth control regulations, employment performance, consumption habits, and other topics. For example, there were reports individuals were not allowed to ride public transportation for periods of time because they allegedly had not paid for train tickets.
Industry and business experts commented that in its present state, the social credit system was not used to target companies or individuals for their political or religious beliefs, noting the country already possessed other tools outside the social credit system to target companies and individuals. The collection of vast amounts of personal data combined with the prospect of a future universal and unified social credit system, however, could allow authorities to control further the population’s behaviors.
In a separate use of social media for censorship, human rights activists reported authorities questioned them regarding their participation in human rights-related chat groups, including on WeChat and WhatsApp. Authorities monitored the groups to identify activists, which led to users’ increased self-censorship on WeChat as well as several separate arrests of chat group administrators.
The government continued to use the “double-linked household” system in Xinjiang developed through many years of use in Tibet. This system divides towns and neighborhoods into units of 10 households each, with the households in each unit instructed to watch over each other and report on “security issues” and poverty problems to the government, thus turning average citizens into informers. In Xinjiang the government also continued to require Uyghur families to accept government “home stays,” in which officials or volunteers forcibly lived in Uyghurs’ homes and monitored families’ observance of religion for signs of “extremism.” Those who exhibited behaviors the government considered to be signs of “extremism,” such as praying, possessing religious texts, or abstaining from alcohol or tobacco, could be detained in “re-education camps.”
The government restricted the right to have children (see section 6, Women).
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were no credible reports that the Special Administrative Region (SAR) or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The law prohibits such practices and there were few reports of such abuse. According to a June Amnesty International report, prisoners in detention did not report abuse due to fear of retaliation. Other observers in direct contact with those in the detention facilities did not report witnessing or seeing evidence of abuse in the facilities.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Under the NSL, however, the Hong Kong Police Force made several arbitrary arrests. The Hong Kong Police Force maintains internal security and reports to the SAR’s Security Bureau. The Immigration Department of the Security Bureau controls passage of persons into and out of the SAR as well as the documentation of local residents. The Security Bureau and police continue to report to the chief executive. The National Security Department of the police force, however, which was established by the NSL, operates under the supervision of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government, and the NSL permits the embedding of mainland security personnel within the department. In addition, the NSL established a Committee on National Security within the SAR government that reports to the PRC government, as well as an Office for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong that is staffed by members of the PRC security agencies who may not be prosecuted under the SAR’s legal system. Therefore, it was no longer clear if the SAR’s civilian authorities maintain effective autonomous control over the city’s security services.
Security forces targeted nonviolent protesters, opposition politicians, and prodemocracy activists and organizations during the year. Multiple sources also reported suspected members of the PRC central government security services in the SAR were monitoring political activists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and academics who criticized the PRC central government’s policies.
At the time of its passage, the SAR and PRC claimed the NSL was not retroactive. Despite that claim, international observers have noted that the police National Security Department, created by the NSL, used its sweeping investigative powers to find evidence of “sedition” prior to the establishment of the NSL and charge individuals under both the NSL and colonial-era sedition laws. Some of the evidence cited included individuals’ opinion posts online.
On January 6 and 7, authorities arrested 55 political activists for participating in the July 2020 unofficial pan-democratic primary election. Of those arrested, 47 were charged under the NSL with subversion.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the law generally provides for an independent judiciary, its independence was limited in NSL cases. Arrests and prosecutions appeared to be increasingly politically motivated. The SAR’s highest court stated that it was unable to find the NSL or any of its provisions unconstitutional, or to review the NSL based on incompatibility with the Basic Law or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Activists voiced concern about NSL proceedings because those charged under the NSL face stricter bail conditions; may be denied due process (see below) and a fair and public trial (see below); and may face extradition to the mainland for trial. In bail hearings, the NSL places the burden of proof on the defendant, rather than the prosecution, as is otherwise the case in most criminal matters. Local Chinese Communist Party-controlled media entities in the SAR put pressure on the judiciary to accept more “guidance” from the government and called for extradition to the mainland in at least one high-profile 2020 case; they also criticized sentences deemed too lenient.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and the judiciary largely enforced this right. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them and the right to a trial without undue delay, but these rights were not always upheld. Some defendants in drug and drug trafficking cases waited several years to go to trial. Some charged with violations related to the 2019 protest movement may not face trial until 2023 due to a backlog in the judiciary’s caseload. Many of those charged with NSL violations have been remanded into custody and have been awaiting trial for several months because of the NSL’s high threshold for granting bail. Tong Ying-kit was charged and denied bail in July 2020 and was held in custody until his hearing on July 30. Jimmy Lai, arrested in December 2020, then temporarily released on bail, was returned to custody on December 31, 2020. His first trial was not held until the end of May, when he was convicted on a non-NSL charge of “unauthorized assembly” for participation in a 2019 peaceful protest. Given the special requirements for bail in NSL cases, the newness of the law, and COVID-19 pandemic related delays, persons charged under the NSL face longer-than-average pretrial delays.
Defendants are presumed innocent, except in official corruption cases: a sitting or former government official who maintains a standard of living above that commensurate with an official income or who controls monies or property disproportionate to an official income is by law considered guilty of an offense unless the official can satisfactorily explain the discrepancy. The courts upheld this ordinance. Trials are by jury except at the magistrate and district court levels. Under the NSL, SAR authorities may direct that a panel of three specially designated national security judges hear a case instead of a jury. In the trial of the first NSL defendant, Tong Ying-kit, the secretary of justice issued a certificate for the case to be heard by such a three-judge panel.
An attorney is provided at public expense if defendants cannot afford counsel. Defendants have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. The government conducted court proceedings in either Cantonese or English, the SAR’s two official languages. The government provided interpretation service to those not conversant in Cantonese or English during all criminal court proceedings. Defendants could confront and question witnesses testifying against them and present witnesses to testify on their own behalf. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt, the right to be present at their trial, and the right of appeal. In October SAR authorities proposed limiting the right of defendants receiving legal aid to choose their own lawyers, as well as the number of legal aid and judicial review cases that each lawyer may take per year. Some lawyers, activists, and experts have criticized the proposal as restricting defendants’ right to the counsel of their choice and limiting activists’ abilities to challenge authorities’ actions.
SAR courts are charged with interpreting provisions of the Basic Law that address matters within the limits of the SAR’s autonomy. SAR courts also interpret provisions of the Basic Law that relate to central government responsibilities or the relationship between the central authorities and the SAR. The Court of Final Appeal may seek an interpretation of relevant provisions from the PRC central government’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (the legislature). SAR courts must by law follow the standing committee’s interpretations in cases involving central government jurisdiction, although judgments previously rendered are not affected.
The chief executive provides a list of judges eligible to hear NSL cases. Some activists have described this NSL provision, which enables SAR authorities to hand pick the pool of judges to hear national security cases, as inconsistent with judicial independence. In multiple cases, SAR prosecutors have argued that defendants accused of charges that do not fall under the NSL should be tried by these specially designated national security judges, claiming that the cases involved “national security.”
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee determines how the NSL is interpreted, not a SAR-based judiciary or elected body. The standing committee has the power in cases involving foreign countries, serious situations, or major and imminent threats to national security to extradite the accused to the mainland and hold trials behind closed doors.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
SAR authorities detained and imprisoned a growing number of individuals during the year because of expressed and, in some cases, presumed, political views and participation in nonviolent political activities.
Local and international observers noted that with few exceptions, those charged with NSL violations, sedition, or unauthorized assembly were peacefully exercising freedoms of expression, political participation, assembly, and association provided for in the Basic Law and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. For example, activists and legal experts have commented that the 47 individuals charged with violating the NSL for participation in the 2020 unofficial pan-democratic primary election have been accused of subversion for allegedly planning to use a mechanism described in the Basic Law to cause the chief executive to resign.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Territory
The NSL claims jurisdiction over any individual, regardless of location, deemed to be engaged in one of the four vaguely defined criminal activities under the NSL: “secession;” subversion; terrorist activities; or collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security. There are reportedly standing NSL-related arrest warrants against 30 individuals, all residing abroad, one of whom has foreign citizenship and has resided outside the SAR and mainland China for more than 20 years. Although reported in state-controlled media, the government refused to acknowledge the existence of these warrants.
The amendment to the SAR’s Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, effective October 8, also known as the antidoxing amendment, increases the criminal penalties for individuals who are “reckless” with others’ personal information as well as for staff of internet service providers or online platforms that do not comply with doxing-related requests. The only territorial limit on the application of the law is that the concerned individual was present in the SAR at the time of the incident or was a SAR resident, raising concerns that the amendment may be used to prosecute individuals located outside the SAR who criticize SAR officials.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
For apolitical court cases, there is an independent and impartial judiciary for civil matters and access to a court to file lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations by SAR agencies or persons, except for employees of the National Security Department, as well as the Central Government Liaison Office, depending on interpretations of the law.
The law prohibits such actions, but there were multiple reports the SAR government failed to respect these prohibitions, including credible reports that PRC central government security services and the Beijing-mandated Office for Safeguarding National Security monitored prodemocracy and human rights activists and journalists in the SAR. Some of those arrested under the NSL, including some of the 55 individuals arrested in January in connection with the July 2020 unofficial pan-democratic primary election, were required to forfeit personal mobile and computer devices, including before they were formally charged. Police made repeated requests to technology companies for access to individuals’ private correspondence. SAR authorities froze bank accounts of former lawmakers, civil society groups, and other political targets.
Technology companies, activists, and private citizens increasingly raised concerns about the right to privacy and protection of data. The antidoxing amendment passed in October allows the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data to seize and access any electronic devices on the premises without a warrant if they suspect a doxing-related offense has been committed or may be committed. In June the Executive Council approved a proposal to mandate real name registration for subscriber identity module cards and to allow authorities to access telecommunications data without a warrant.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were public reports or credible allegations the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in January that Buddhist monk Tenzin Nyima died in late December 2020 or early January after suffering severe beatings over the course of many months. Sources told HRW that the beatings and other mistreatment left Tenzin in a coma, severely malnourished, and likely paralyzed when he died. Phayul.com reported in May that Norsang (no last name), held incommunicado after his 2019 detention for refusing to participate in People’s Republic of China (PRC)-led political re-education training, was allegedly tortured to death. According to the report, Norsang died in 2019 while in the custody of local security officials, who did not reveal his death until May.
There were no credible reports of disappearances, although the whereabouts of many persons detained by security officials was unknown (see information on incommunicado detention in section 1.c., below).
Gen Sonam, a senior manager of the Potala Palace, was reportedly detained in 2019, and his whereabouts remained unknown.
The whereabouts of the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the second most prominent figure after the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism’s Gelug school, remained unknown. Neither he nor his parents have been seen since they were disappeared, allegedly by or on behalf of PRC authorities in 1995, when he was six years old.
According to sources, police and prison authorities employed torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in dealing with some detainees and prisoners. There were reports that PRC officials severely beat some Tibetans who were incarcerated or otherwise in custody. In February the Tibet Sun reported Kunchok Jinpa, a political prisoner serving a 21-year sentence, died in a hospital shortly after his release from prison. According to the report, Kunchok died from a severe brain hemorrhage resulting from beatings he endured in prison.
Reports from released prisoners indicated some were permanently disabled or in extremely poor health because of the harsh treatment they endured in prison. Former prisoners also reported being isolated in small cells for months at a time and deprived of sleep, sunlight, and adequate food. Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported in March that Gangbu Rikgye Nyima, serving a 10-year sentence for participation in protests, was released in February, a year early. According to RFA, the release came about because Gangbu’s health had deteriorated badly due to beatings and torture in prison.
RFA reported in September that Tibetan monk Thabgey Gyatso was released after serving 12 years of his 15-year sentence. Sources told RFA that “due to harsh treatment in the prison, his vision and overall health have become very weak.”
Impunity for violations of human rights was pervasive. There were no reports that officials investigated or punished those responsible for unlawful killings and other abuses in previous years.
Arbitrary arrest and detention remained serious problems. Legal safeguards for detained or imprisoned Tibetans were inadequate in both design and implementation.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
There is no judicial independence from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or the PRC government in law or practice. In August for example, the TAR Higher People’s Court announced the hiring of six court clerks. Among the job requirements was successful passage of a “political background check” by candidates and all their family members. In cases that authorities claimed involved “endangering state security” or “separatism,” trials often were cursory and closed.
In July HRW issued a report detailing the September 2020 denial of a fair trial to four Tibetan monks from the Tengro Monastery in Tingri County, TAR. The report indicated that the four were arrested for having foreign contacts. Their access to lawyers and to the evidence used against them was restricted and no details of their trial were made public.
Criminal suspects in the PRC have the right to hire a lawyer or other defense representation, but many Tibetan defendants, particularly those facing politically motivated charges, did not have access to legal representation while in pretrial detention. In many cases lawyers were unwilling to take clients due to political risks or because Tibetan families often did not have the resources to cover legal fees. In rare cases, defendants were denied access to legal representation entirely. For example, Tashi Wangdui, a Tibetan HIV and AIDS awareness campaigner sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 for “endangering state security,” has been denied access to any of his lawyers since his conviction.
While some Tibetan lawyers are licensed in Tibetan areas, observers reported they were often unwilling to defend individuals in front of ethnic Han judges and prosecutors due to fear of reprisals or disbarment.
Local sources noted trials were predominantly conducted in Mandarin, with government interpreters provided for defendants who did not speak Mandarin. Court decisions, proclamations, and other judicial documents, however, generally were not published in Tibetan.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
An unknown number of Tibetans were detained, arrested, or sentenced because of their political or religious activities.
FreeTibet.net reported in November that well-known Tibetan writer Lobsang Lhundup (pen name: Dhi Lhaden) had been sentenced to four years in prison. Lobsang had been arbitrarily detained in Chengdu in 2019 before the FreeTibet.net report indicated he was charged with “disrupting social order.” According to the report, Lobsang was sentenced after a “secret trial”; no further details were provided.
Outside observers examined publicly available information and, as of late May, identified between 500 and 2,000 Tibetans known or believed to be detained or imprisoned by PRC authorities in violation of international human rights standards. Of the 115 cases for which there was information available on sentencing, punishment ranged from 15 months’ to life imprisonment. These data, for both overall detentions and sentencing, were believed to cover only a small fraction of the actual number of political prisoners.
In January official media reported that in 2020 the TAR prosecutor’s office approved the arrest and prosecution of 74 individuals allegedly for “threatening” China’s “political security.” Details, including the whereabouts of those arrested, were unknown.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Approximately 150,000 Tibetans live outside Tibet, many as refugees in India and Nepal.
Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion: The Tibetan overseas community is frequently subjected to harassment, monitoring, and cyberattacks believed to be carried out by the PRC government. In September the Jamestown Foundation reported on tactics PRC officials used to target Tibetan activists overseas and the Tibetan diaspora community. The report described the secret infiltration of communities, reporting on Tibetans, and the use of disinformation. The report also indicated that Chinese consulates abroad often collect data from family members applying for visas to use the information to identify and target Tibetans in the PRC. Media outlets reported PRC government efforts to hack into the mobile phones of officials in the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and of several leaders of the Central Tibetan Administration, the overseas Tibetan community’s governance organization. The PRC government at times compelled Tibetans in China to pressure family members seeking asylum overseas to return.
Bilateral Pressure: There were credible reports that the PRC continued to put heavy pressure on Nepal to implement a border systems management agreement and a mutual legal assistance treaty, as well as to conclude an extradition treaty that could result in the refoulement of Tibetan refugees to the PRC. Nepal does not appear to have implemented either proposed agreement and postponed action on the extradition treaty.
Authorities electronically and manually monitored private correspondence and searched, without warrant, private homes and businesses for photographs of the Dalai Lama and other forbidden items. Police routinely examined the cell phones of TAR residents in random stops or as part of other investigations to search for “reactionary music” from India or photographs of the Dalai Lama. Authorities also questioned and detained some individuals who disseminated writings and photographs over the internet or listened to teachings of the Dalai Lama on their cell phones. Authorities continued to employ pervasive surveillance systems, including the use of facial recognition and smart identity cards.
The “grid system,” an informant system also known as the “double-linked household system,” facilitated authorities’ efforts to identify and control persons considered “extremist” or “splittist.” The grid system groups households and other establishments and encourages them to report problems to the government, including financial problems and political transgressions, in other group households. Tibet.net reported in March that TAR authorities issued new regulations designed to encourage Tibetans to spy on each other. The article noted that the PRC often tests the loyalty of Tibetans by having them report on each other. Authorities rewarded individuals with money and other forms of compensation for their reporting. The maximum reward for information leading to the arrests of social media users deemed disloyal to the government increased to 300,000 renminbi ($42,800), six times the average per capita GDP in the TAR, according to local media.
According to sources in the TAR, Tibetans frequently received telephone calls from security officials ordering them to remove from their cell phones photographs, articles, and information on international contacts the government deemed sensitive. Security officials visited the residences of those who did not comply with such orders. Media reports indicated that in some areas, households were required to have photographs of PRC President Xi Jinping in prominent positions and were subject to inspections and fines for noncompliance. In a May case, media reported local officials sentenced a Tibetan herder from Qinghai Province for having “Tibet-related” material on his mobile phone.
The TAR regional government punished CCP members who followed the Dalai Lama, secretly harbored religious beliefs, made pilgrimages to India, or sent their children to study with Tibetans in exile.
Individuals in Tibetan areas reported they were subjected to government harassment and investigation because of family members living overseas. Observers also reported that many Tibetans traveling to visit family overseas were required to spend several weeks in political education classes after returning to China. Pharul.com reported in August that in April PRC authorities ordered Tibetans in Shigatse Prefecture, Dingri County, TAR to provide a list of their relatives living overseas. The demand followed similar efforts elsewhere in the TAR. Failure to do so would result in these individuals losing PRC-provided benefits.
The government also interfered with the ability of persons to find employment. Media reports in May noted that advertisements for 286 positions of different types in the TAR required applicants to “align ideologically, politically, and in action with the CCP Central Committee,” “oppose any splittist tendencies,” and “expose and criticize the Dalai Lama.” The advertisements explained that all applicants were subject to a political review prior to employment.