BEIJING, CHINA (BosNewsLife)-- Authorities in central China have suspended the trial of a prominent evangelical church leader, while lawyers investigating the jailing of Christians in an "illegal detention center" have been tortured, trial observers and rights activists said Thursday, April 17.
Among those targeted is Chinese Pastor Zhang Shaojie whose trial began on April 10 in the Nanle County of China's central Henan Province, but court proceedings have been "suspended indefinitely" after his lawyers were detained, according to Chinese Christians following the case.
In a statement, Zhang’s family said they were forced to dismiss the lawyers amid concerns they were at risk of losing their licences. Witnesses said the Nanle County court was surrounded by police and that only two family members were allowed to attend Zhang’s trial.
A U.S. Embassy official was reportedly barred from the court room. On the eve of the April 10 hearing, Zhang’s daughter Zhang Huixin was taken to Nanle County Public Security Bureau for “interrogation” along with her one year-old daughter and mother, Zhang’s wife, explained China Aid Association (CAA), which represents the Christians.
Zhang Shaojie has been charged with “fraud” and “disturbing public order”, charges his supporters link to his Christian activities. The pastor, whose Nanle County Christian Church operates under the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement, was detained in November November 2013.
NO FORMAL DOCUMENTATION
Christians said he was captured "without any formal documentation" after church members petitioned a higher authority about a land dispute involving the church. Over 20 church members were also detained and at least nine church members have remained in detention and three others remain missing after being taken into police custody, according to rights investigators.
During the April 10 court proceedings, Lawyer Xia Jun reportedly questioned witness statements against Pastor Zhang, saying the remarks of at least one witness was taken under duress, and raised concerns about the rule of law.
In a separete case, lawyers Jiang Tianyong, Tang Jitian, Wang Cheng and Zhang Junjie accused authorities of illegal detention and torture. The lawyers and several others were detained March 21 after trying to visit Qinglongshan Farm in Heilongjiang region, believed to be an illegal detention centre holding a variety of people, including unregistered church Christians.
Zhang Junjie was released after five days; the other three lawyers were released on April 6 after serving 15-day administrative sentences, rights activists said. "Upon their release, Jiang Tianyong and Wang Cheng have both been closely watched and harassed by police, and Wang’s child has reportedly been threatened with a ban from attending school in Zhejiang," said advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
The four lawyers said in published remarks they were illegally detained by officials from the Jiansanjiang Agricultural Reclamation Public Security Bureau, who behaved “like kidnappers” and that they were beaten while in detention to force them to drop their lawsuit on behalf of victims of illegal detention on Qinglongshan Farm.
LAWYERS, CITIZENS HARASSED
They said that "many other lawyers and citizens were harassed, beaten and detained by the police after appealing for their release."
The lawyers demand that the authorities “immediately investigate and ban” centres like the legal education centre in Heilongjiang, which they claim have replaced the abolished re-education through labour (RTL) camps, according to a translated statement.
CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas told BosnewsLife that the latest developments, including the detention and trial of Pastor Zhang Shaojie "raises serious questions about police and officials’ commitment to rule of law in China."
He said CSW has urged "the relevant authorities to carefully investigate the lawyers’ claims that the procuratorate is in violation of Chinese law."
Additionally, "We also urge the authorities to investigate the illegal detention of Lawyers Jiang Tianyong, Tang Jitian, Wang Cheng and Zhang Junjie and their allegations of torture and ill-treatment, as well as secure the release of others illegally detained in Heilongjiang.”
Despite the reported crackdown, there may be as many as 130 million Christians in Communist-run China, according to church groups and even officials.