ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now an update on a Chinese human rights activist we introduced you to several years ago and who is not for the first time under arrest in China. His name is Huang Qi. From a computer in his apartment in the city of Chengdu, Huang managed a website that tracked human rights abuses. His advocacy for the families of protesters who'd been killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown landed him in prison for five years.
In 2008 when I met him in Chengdu, he was back home and on the computer cataloguing what he called land grabs by local Chinese officials and the claims of landless farmers. I went to his apartment, and I asked him there if there was a line that he could observe between tolerable activism and actions that would land him back in prison.
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HUANG QI: (Through interpreter) It mainly depends on how we make our case. We make sure to follow the law, The People's Republic of China, and we make certain we present our cases subjectively and truthfully. Then, in my opinion, the line does not exist at least in present-day China because compared to 10 years ago, the human rights situation in China today has improved a great deal.
SIEGEL: Huang's optimism nearly a decade ago proved excessive. A couple of days later, a huge earthquake shook Chengdu. Huang Qi took up the cause of parents whose children were killed in school building collapses all over the province of Sichuan. He was arrested. He did another prison term, got out and resumed his activism. Last year, he posted a government document that described him as a target for arrest. After that, he was again arrested last November. The NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders says the document was retroactively classified top-secret, making Huang's case one of national security.
He's now in prison and evidently in very poor health, and he wasn't able to see his lawyer for 10 months. They've met only once. The lawyer, Sui Muqing, told NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing that despite the fact the Huang Qi has been held for nearly 11 months, authorities say the case is still being investigated.
SUI MUQING: (Through interpreter) So far, we've been unable to see the files for this case, and so we haven't put together our defense for Huang yet. But I think everybody knows in their hearts that the case against him is deeply flawed.
SIEGEL: And as for Huang Qi's physical condition...
SUI: (Through interpreter) Huang's illness is very severe. He came down with a number of illnesses during and after his last stint in prison. One of them is incurable.
SIEGEL: NPR contacted regional Chinese law enforcement agencies, but they were not forthcoming with details about Huang's health or his legal status. We did speak with Patrick Poon, who is a researcher for Amnesty International in Hong Kong. He says it's not unusual for Chinese dissidents who've been arrested to have trouble meeting with a lawyer. Once they're charged with damaging national security, they're told that by meeting with a lawyer, they might pass on some information that would further damage national security.
PATRICK POON: That's often, like, the excuse that we hear, like, from lawyers who are helping these dissidents. They are always told by the officers at the detention center that they are not allowed to meet their clients because their clients are accused of endangering national security.
SIEGEL: I asked Patrick Poon about the judgment Huang Qi made to me about openness in China back in 2008 that things were not so restrictive as they had been 10 years earlier. How would Poon describe the trend in China in the nearly 10 years since I met Huang? Crackdowns, he said, have become more common.
POON: I see like the increasing crackdown will be on limiting people's discussion and reports about human rights violations and also human rights defenders' situation in China.
SIEGEL: I asked Poon whether international pressure has been of any help to human rights activists in cases like this one.
POON: We have heard from many lawyers who work on these cases always telling us that the situation can be much better if we have international pressure on them.
SIEGEL: Patrick Poon of Amnesty International in Hong Kong. We were talking about the situation of Chinese human rights activist Huang Qi, who has been jailed without trial since last November. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.