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Chinese dissident flees to U.S. and describes torture

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Chinese dissident writer Yu Jie speaks to the media during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.on Wednesday.

BEIJING – Last week Chinese dissident author Yu Jie fled to the United States to avoid what he described as further “inhumane treatment” by the government.

Now Yu, 38, is speaking out about his experience in detention during a sensitive time in China’s recent human rights history: the 2010 awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to his friend and fellow dissident, Liu Xiaobo.

Yu is a best-selling author who began producing literary works at age 13 and eventually rose to become vice president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center from 2005-2007. A devout Christian, Yu visited President George W. Bush in 2006 and was acknowledged for his work on behalf of underground Christian and Roman Catholic house church practitioners in China who worship in private out of fear or imprisonment by the authorities.

Besides religious freedom, Yu has also often publicly criticized the Communist party on other issues and was one of 10 prominent Chinese social activists whom we profiled in 2010 ahead of the Nobel Peace Prize.

During his years of activism, Yu was frequently detained for his writing – most notably, his 2010 book “China’s Best Actor: Wen Jiabao,” which was published in Hong Kong and took a negative view of the mainland’s prime minister. The book quickly drew the ire of officials and led to his temporary home detention in Beijing.

In October 2010, Yu was placed under house arrest again five days after Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize win was announced. This time, his computer, phone and other communication devices were confiscated.

At a press conference Wednesday in Washington, Yu described the tight security around his house at the time as being “like a dragnet.” He explained: “Four plainclothes policemen watched the entrance to my home 24 hours a day, even pressing a table against the main door and installing six cameras and infrared detectors at the front and back of my house.”

In the weeks and days leading up to the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, state security officers worked to quietly roundup social activists and dissidents who could potentially embarrass China. Yu was detained on Dec. 9, 2010, one day before the official Nobel ceremony in Oslo.   

The final moments after Yu was hauled from his home to a waiting police car were brutal, he says.  “Over a dozen plainclothes officers and several cars were waiting there,” Yu recalled at the press conference in D.C. “Immediately, two burly men charged at me, slapping the glasses from my face and covering my head with a black hood, and then forcing me into the back of a car.”

Yu was driven to an undisclosed location, where he says he was stripped naked and made to kneel while officers took turns delivering blows to his head and body and stomping him when he was on the ground.

“They forced me to kneel and slapped me over a hundred times in the face,” said Yu. “They even forced me to slap myself. They would be satisfied only when they heard the slapping sound, and laughed madly.”

All the while, police hurled verbal abuse at Yu and continually called him a traitor for writing articles attacking the Communist Party. Yu also recalled police officers taking photos of him naked and periodically threatening to post them on the Internet to humiliate him.

When Yu finally collapsed unconscious, police took him to a hospital and were said to have told hospital staff that he was epileptic. He was eventually released after he promised state security that he would not talk to foreign journalists about his detention.

Government officials have not publicly commented on Yu’s account of events.

An ‘exile at heart’
Yu and his wife and young son were allowed to leave China last week, bringing to an end his near decade-long ban from publishing.

In a telephone interview with Reuters after his arrival last Friday, Yu did not say whether he formally sought asylum in the United States for himself or his family. He had visited the U.S. many times before and said authorities had warned him to keep quiet ahead of this latest trip.  

For their part, the U.S. State Department denied having an active role in bringing Yu here. In answer to a question about Yu’s arrival in country during a regular press briefing last week, the State Department responded: “We are aware of reports of Mr. Yu’s arrival to the United States. We have not had any contact with Chinese officials about his reported arrival.”

Still, if Yu had been warned by the Chinese about being outspoken on his arrival here, he seems to have ignored them. During his prepared remarks in Washington. Yu looked back on what he sees as a deteriorating environment of free speech in China: 

“During the Jiang Zemin era [1989-2002], I had been able to publish some of my works in China – there was still a certain space for free speech in China. After Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao took power in 2004, I was totally blocked. Since that time, no media in mainland China would print a single word by me, and articles by others which mentioned my name would be deleted. Though I was physically in China, I became an “exile at heart” and a “non-existent person” in the public space.”

The Chinese government’s refusal to publish anything about Yu Jie in state publications has manifested itself in the seeming indifference to his release by the general public. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, there were posts about Yu, underscoring again the effectiveness of China’s propaganda and censoring mechanisms.

Censoring discussion of Yu Jie’s next work though may prove to be more problematic: Yu is soon planning to release a biography about Liu Xiaobo that has been authorized by Liu’s wife.