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U.S. Envoys Help Chinese Human Rights Lawyer's Family Stage Prison Escape


Two years ago, China began a crackdown on the country's human rights lawyers. Hundreds were detained or questioned. We're going to hear the story of one of them and how the U.S. helped his family escape from prison. It raises questions about how the Trump administration will approach the issue of human rights in China. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Attorney Xie Yang was swept up with other rights lawyers in July of 2015. The government charged him with inciting people to subvert China's government. In January, Xie alleged in a written statement that police beat him and tortured him in custody. He also wrote that if he ever admitted his guilt or denied that he'd been tortured, it's probably because he was forced to. On trial this week, a judge asked him about this.


UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: "Did police torture you to make you confess?" "No, they did not," he replied.

CHEN GUIQIU: (Through interpreter) For these words to come out of his mouth, he had to have faced some sort of coercion that he couldn't bear.

KUHN: That's Xie's wife, Chen Guiqiu. She suspects Xie was threatened or tortured into saying he wasn't tortured. Chen's own story is just as harrowing as her husband's. She helped get his story out, and because of it, she came under intense pressure from authorities. In February, she fled China with her two daughters. She snuck into Thailand, but Thai authorities caught her, put her in an immigration jail and prepared to deport her to China. What happened next...

BOB FU: Is really a miracle.

KUHN: Says Bob Fu, founder of the Texas-based human rights group China Aid.

FU: I pinpoint the exact prison cell professor Chen, the two daughters were staying.

KUHN: Fu urged the U.S. government to go rescue them. The younger of the two daughters is a U.S. citizen. Within hours, Fu said, U.S. diplomats were headed for the jail.

FU: The decision was already made by, I was told, the highest authorities in the Trump administration.

KUHN: Fu says Chinese agents were waiting outside the jail's front gate to take Chen and her daughters away, but U.S. diplomats persuaded the Thai authorities to let them escort the three out the back door. They headed to the airport where, Fu says, Chinese agents showed up. They pressured Thai authorities not to let the trio depart the country.

FU: So it was a major standoff at times, I was told - almost physical clash.

KUHN: In the end, some kind of deal was reached, and Chen and her two daughters flew to the U.S. The deal apparently involved all sides remaining silent about it. Mary Beth Polley is the U.S. embassy spokesperson in Beijing.

MARY BETH POLLEY: The Department of State takes its obligations to assist U.S. citizens abroad seriously. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.

KUHN: Bob Fu and his group have been helping people like Mrs. Chen for years, but he says he's never seen anything like this.

FU: I really want to give credit to the Trump administration. I think it was a very daring and decisive action.

KUHN: Human rights groups have applauded the U.S. moves in this case to protect its citizens abroad, but they were concerned when in February 11 foreign governments wrote to China to express concern about reports that it was torturing lawyers. The U.S. did not sign that letter. Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, says it's too early to say whether the Bangkok rescue is representative of a broader U.S. human rights policy.

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: An indicator for how the new U.S. administration is going to proceed on these kinds of issues is going to be about non-U.S. citizens who are trapped in (laughter) these kinds of circumstances.

KUHN: Xie Yang is now out of prison on bail, but his wife says he's still not free. She thanks her rescuers and hopes that she and her husband can be reunited soon in the U.S. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN'S "JYNWEYTHEK YLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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