Prominent writer missing after being detained

New York, December 11, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists today expressed concern for the welfare of prominent activist and writer Liu Xiaobo, who has not been heard from since authorities detained him in Beijing on Monday, according to his wife and lawyer. 

National security officials in Beijing arrested Liu, a leading member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. He was picked up at home at the same time as political theorist Zhang Zuhua, according to Liu’s defense lawyer, Mo Shaoping, who spoke with CPJ by telephone this morning. The two were among more than 300 signatories to “Charter 08,” a document calling for political reform which was published online Tuesday in advance of Wednesday’s anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to international news reports.

Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, told CPJ in a telephone interview this morning that she did not know her husband’s whereabouts, and had not been officially informed of the reason for his arrest. The interview was interrupted twice when the phone connection was unexpectedly cut. Police are required to provide written notification of the reason for a detention within 24 hours, according to Mo. 

Liu has been detained in the past for his writing. Zhang Yu, a Chinese PEN representative, told CPJ that Liu has written numerous articles on issues that often prompt official retribution in China. In one recent online article reproduced in Chinese on the center’s Web site in early November, Liu outlines reasons why the government should cooperate peacefully with the Dalai Lama. Liu is also frequently interviewed by international journalists.

Zhang was questioned about the charter and released after about 12 hours, Mo said. Zhang was not available for comment when CPJ called his house this morning, and repeated calls afterward did not go through.

“Beijing should reveal Liu’s whereabouts and the grounds for his detention,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “We are concerned that a writer like Liu, who has a long career of publishing articles that critique government policies, is particularly vulnerable to unfair prosecution in China. The fact that his wife and lawyer do not know his whereabouts is cause for even greater concern.”

Other signatories to the charter–a group that encompasses officials, media professionals, and academics as well as dissidents–have been questioned, according to Human Rights Watch. But it was not clear why Zhang and Liu had apparently been singled out for detention after putting their names on the document, which calls for an end to one-party rule and legal reform to protect human rights. Mo Shaoping–who also signed the document–said the authorities may suspect that the two were among the key organizers. An English translation of the charter is available on the Web site of The New York Review of Books. It includes a call for a press law to protect the media. 

Liu, a former Beijing Normal University professor, was imprisoned for 20 months in the 1990s after authorities accused him of involvement in 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, according to The Associated Press. Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the ruling Communist party’s military crackdown on that movement.

Chinese authorities have used extracts from published articles as a reason to imprison critics in the past. In a June interview published in Falling Short, a CPJ report on media in China in the run-up to the Olympic Games, Mo Shaoping said that freelance journalist Lü Gengsong’s four-year sentence for inciting subversion of state power, handed down in February, was based on extracts selected from 19 “problematic” essays, from a total output of more than 200. Activist Hu Jia, a prolific writer, received a three and a half year sentence in April–also for subversion–for six essays published online and two interviews with foreign media outlets.