To the relief of family and supporters, respected Chinese civil rights lawyer Li Heping was released from detention May 9. But they found a man who had aged considerably during his two years of incarceration.
Author and legal scholar Terry Halliday considers Li a friend. The last time they saw each other was just a few days before the Christian attorney was secretly taken away by police in mid-2015.
Halliday this week did not recognize the now 46-year-old in a video and photos taken upon his release.
“[He looked] very thin. He’s aged about 20 years. His hair has gone grey. He’s gone through a torturous time, I would say,” Halliday told The Guardian. “I would defy anybody… to imagine that so much transformation could have occurred over two years.”
“The only thing that I recognized was his smile — that wonderful smile of his that has always been a reflection of his warmth and his kindness.”
See this video of his reunion with his family below:
Li is expressly not allowed by the state to speak with the media, but his wife, Wang Qiaoling, can. Wang told BBC’s China Desk that she too had a hard time recognizing her husband.
“He was a young man before being taken away, but he has come back old. I didn’t recognize him. He has changed so much. He has been severely tortured,” Wang told BBC’s John Sudworth.
She described what her husband had been subjected to while detained, giving us an idea of why he aged so much.
“In May 2016 in the Tianjin Number One Detention Centre, he was put in handcuffs and shackles with an iron chain linking the two together,” Wang said.
“It meant that he could not stand up straight, he could only stoop, even while sleeping. He wore that instrument of torture 24/7 for one month,” she said.
“They wanted him to confess,” she added.
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Wang said the police likewise beat her husband and forced him to stand at attention without moving for 15 hours straight. They also subjected him to sleep deprivation for “days on end.”
He was also made to take drugs.
“He was forced to take medicine. They stuffed the pills into his mouth, as he refused to take them voluntarily,” she says.
“The police told him that they were for high blood pressure, but my husband doesn’t suffer from that.
“After taking the pills, he felt pain in his muscles and his vision was blurred.”
These forms of ill treatment are similar to those many of his clients — underground Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, and fellow persecuted civil rights lawyers — have been subjected to by the state during detention and imprisonment.
Watch one prisoner of conscience’s account of torture while imprisoned in a Chinese prison in this video by NTDTV:
His brother, Li Chunfu, was also one of those detained in the communist’s crackdown on rights lawyers and activists.
After 500 days in secret detention, Li Chunfu was “released on bail” on January 12 this year. When his wife, Bi Liping, picked him up from a police station, she found him to be a shell of a man.
“Chunfu was thin like sticks, he was pale, his eyes lifeless,” Bi said.
Other lawyers have made similar allegations of torture while in detention.
In a secret trial last month, Li was given a suspended sentence for “subversion of state power.”
His sentence effectively means he will be silenced for four years. It renders him unable to work as a civil rights lawyer, which he had been doing before being detained in July 2015 when he was one of the 300-plus human rights lawyers and activists rounded up by the authorities.
For his work in human rights, Li has been recognized by the U.S. Congress-funded National Endowment for Democracy and the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe.
Li and his family are now being monitored by security agents 24/7.
For a quick summary of Li’s situation, see this video from United News International: