Chinese officials routinely pressure family members of political activists and government critics to get them to fall in line.
Liu himself is currently serving an 11-year jail sentence for inciting subversion after helping organize a pro-democracy campaign called "Charter '08." Now his brother-in-law, Liu Hui, faces 14 years imprisonment. The three-hour hearing in a suburban Beijing court ended without a verdict.
“Persecuting relatives is part of the arsenal deployed against dissidents, critics and whistleblowers as a matter of routine” in China, says Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong. “It is very much part of the repertoire of political repression.”
Mo Shaoping, Mr. Liu’s lawyer, said he could not say whether the fraud case, based on an earlier real estate dispute that has since been resolved, was politically motivated or not, but, he says, “I do not believe there is enough evidence to charge him.”
Liu Hui is the brother of the Nobel laureate’s wife, Liu Xia, who herself has been confined to her Beijing apartment by plainclothes guards almost permanently since her husband’s arrest, despite the fact that she has never been accused of any crime.
The court case came a day after another democracy activist, Zhang Lin, announced that he had given up his campaign to send his 10-year-old daughter to school near his home in the southern province of Anhui. The school she had been attending, in the provincial capital Hefei, had refused to re-admit her, prompting widespread outrage on the Chinese Internet.
Zhang Anni is by no means the first Chinese child to be denied schooling because of her father’s activism. Jailed human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng’s daughter, Geng Ge, was turned away from high schools in Beijing in 2008 after her father was detained. She and her mother fled secretly to the United States shortly thereafter so that she could continue her education.
“The Communist Party wanted my husband to compromise,” says Mr. Gao’s wife, Geng He, “so they used my daughter and me as tools and put us through horrors.”
Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng complained in testimony to the US Congress earlier this month that “persecution of my family has never stopped” since he moved to the United States a year ago.
When Mr. Chen was allowed to leave China after having escaped from illegal house arrest and sought protection at the US Embassy in Beijing, the Chinese government gave assurances that his relatives would be treated according to law, US officials said at the time.
But Chen’s nephew, sentenced last November to 39 months in jail for assault, has been told by officials that if he appeals against the sentence he will be locked up for life, according to the young man’s father, Chen’s eldest brother Chen Guangfu.
Chen Guangfu says he and his family are under constant surveillance by plainclothes policemen and have suffered repeated petty harassments. Last night, he said in a telephone interview that somebody threw rocks through his windows and in the morning he found that saplings he had planted on his farmland had been uprooted and destroyed.
The authorities apparently hope that such treatment will induce Chen Guangcheng, currently studying law at New York University, to keep a low profile.
“They use relatives as pawns to try to make dissidents give up their pursuit of democracy,” explains Zhu Qiaofu, who says he has been subjected to such pressure many times. His brother, Zhu Yufu, is currently serving the latest in a string of jail sentences for his pro-democracy activism; Zhu Qiaofu says he has been fired from three jobs because of his brother’s convictions and that a sister, Zhu Xiaoyan, was forced to divorce her husband to save her father-in-law, a party official, from retribution.
“We told our brother that we were suffering because of him,” recalls Zhu Qiaofu. “He told us this was happening not because he was pursuing democracy but because there was no democracy in China. At the time I did not understand his words. Now I totally do.”
Hu Jia, an Aids activist who spent three years in jail, recently sent his wife and young daughter to Hong Kong so as to spare them more such pressure, he says.
“I saw how the police treated the children of Chen [Guangcheng] and Gao [Zhisheng] and I did not want my daughter to suffer the same fate,” says Mr. Hu. “The political police fully understand that children are dissidents’ greatest concern; my wife and I decided to send our child to Hong Kong so as to protect her from being hurt.”
Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, believes her brother has been charged with fraud as a way to threaten her, after she accepted a brief interview with Associated Press reporters and met friends who snuck into her apartment when the guards were absent.
“I have no doubt,” agrees Mr. Bequelin, “that the charges have been brought so as to pressure Liu Xia into silence and disappearance.”
Chinese officials insist, against all evidence, that Ms. Liu is free to come and go from her home as she pleases. But the government also pledged to treat Chen’s relatives according to law, Bequelin points out.
“The backhanded persecution of dissidents’ family members is particularly worrying,” he adds, “because it calls into question whether we can trust the Chinese government’s promises at all.”