Chinese dissidents defy arrest of leader Group of 15 sends letter to national parliament in rare case of open dissent

November 29, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- In a rare display of open opposition to the government, 15 dissidents have called for the release of Wei Jingsheng, the father of China's modern democracy movement, who was charged last week with trying to overthrow the government.

"There should be nothing seditious about what we are trying to do," Wang Youcai, a member of the group, said yesterday. "We have the right to express our opinions and anyway don't fear jail."

The group sent the letter to China's parliament, the National People's Congress, demanding that it investigate the legality of holding Mr. Wei. Mr. Wei was formally arrested last week after being held incommunicado for 20 months.

Speaking by telephone from his home in the east-central city of Hangzhou, Mr. Wang said that the group decided to send the letter because Mr. Wei had been arrested for expressing his views, a right protected by China's constitution.

"Wei Jingsheng's detention for 20 months was illegal and violates the constitution," the letter stated.

"The arrest of Wei Jingsheng shows that the ruling party is not sincere about the political reforms that it has promised," the letter added.

Such open letters have been rare since the spring of 1989, when the Chinese army crushed anti-government protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Hundreds of people, including Mr. Wang, who signed the petition, were arrested after the Tiananmen crackdown.

Mr. Wei, 46, was first arrested in 1979 during the Democracy Wall movement for writing pamphlets denouncing one-party rule and the autocratic leadership style of supreme leader Deng Xiaoping. Sentenced to 15 years, he became a symbol of China's embattled democracy movement.

He was released six months early, in the autumn of 1993, as China was trying to improve its international image and land the 2000 Summer Olympics.

The bid for the Olympics failed, and six months later, on April 1, 1994, Mr. Wei was detained by police on a highway outside Beijing and never seen again.

Even though formal charges were filed last week -- which in China's legal system means that his guilt has been established -- his family has still not been able to see him or send a lawyer to his prison.

During his six months of freedom, Mr. Wei infuriated authorities by speaking out on a range of issues and publishing articles overseas. The new charges filed against him carry the death penalty, although a decade in prison or deportation is seen as more probable.

In addition to demanding Mr. Wei's release, the dissidents' letter also called for the release of all political prisoners. Mr. Wang said, however, that it was the arrest of Mr. Wei, a nominee for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, that spurred them on.

Most of the dissidents signing the letter live in eastern central China, near Mr. Wang. The letter was dated Nov. 27, but only reached Beijing yesterday through the offices of Human Rights in China, a New York-based advocacy group.

Mr. Wei's arrest underscored the emphasis China's leaders place on stability.

Fearing a loss of power and fearful of the problems plaguing Russia and other former communist countries, China has cracked down hard on people promoting different points of views.

Speaking yesterday at a press briefing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Mr. Wei had been arrested legally. Referring to criticism from the United States and other western countries, which have called for Mr. Wei's release, he said China would not tolerate outside interference in its legal system.

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