Chinese police question human rights activist

January 12, 2012 - 6:36 AM

BEIJING (AP) — A prominent Chinese human rights activist released from prison last year said Thursday that police seized two of his computers and warned him to tone down his activism and online comments or face detention.

China has become increasingly diligent about quashing critical voices, apparently fearful that they could spark protests like those that unseated autocrats in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya last year. The crackdown has alarmed activists and outspoken intellectuals, with some resorting to exile.

On Wednesday, a well-known dissident writer who has been frequently threatened with jail time for his writing departed China for the United States, possibly for good.

In Beijing, activist Hu Jia said police questioned him for about 7 hours Thursday, criticizing him for his frequent comments on Twitter about sensitive subjects, including the denial of visitors to prominent rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who is serving a three-year jail sentence in China's remote Xinjiang region, and the failure of U.S. lawmaker Chris Smith to visit a blind activist in eastern China in November because he could not get a visa.

Hu said police were most concerned however about a letter he wrote last month to the Nobel Peace Prize committee, appealing for greater attention to the plight of jailed Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, and his wife Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest for more than a year.

"It was a very official warning," Hu said. "They said if I continue this way, they will seize my computers and I could be detained for up to 15 days."

Hu's and his wife's computers were taken from his home Wednesday night by police and have yet to be returned, he said.

A major figure in China's dissident community, Hu, 38, last year completed a 3 1/2-year sentence for inciting subversion. He was awarded of the European Parliament's top human rights award, the 50,000-euro ($72,000) Sakharov Prize.

Phelim Kine, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the raid on Hu's house was linked to government anxiety over potential unrest ahead of a coming leadership transition.

Kine said Chinese rights activists were likely to face "heightened police surveillance, harassment and detention" in the run-up to the Communist Party congress that will inaugurate new leaders in the second half of the year.

"Human, electronic and Internet surveillance will only tighten this year as the Chinese government seeks to identify, target and neutralize any potential public challenges to its grip on power," Kine said in an email.

Meanwhile, a friend of well-known author Yu Jie said the writer left China on Wednesday after planning his exit for half a year, though it wasn't clear if the move was permanent.

Shen Quan, the pastor of an underground Beijing church where Yu worshipped, said Yu sold his home in Beijing recently.

Shen said he didn't feel comfortable speculating on why Yu left but said it was "probably because of the difficult time he had in China."

"We all know sometimes he was prevented from leaving his house and was taken away during sensitive periods," Shen said.

Chinese dissidents are often put under house arrest or detained by authorities ahead of important political meetings and around sensitive dates such as the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, military crackdown on democracy protesters.

A Voice of America video report posted online showed Yu arriving in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday night with his wife and young son.

Yu helped found the Independent PEN Center in China, which fights for freedom of expression, and is a vocal Christian who has angered authorities by outspokenly advocating religious freedom. He is also author of "China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao," a critical appraisal of China's premier that was published in Hong Kong in 2010 despite police threats that he could be put in prison.

In a 2010 interview with The Associated Press, Yu said he was anxious about being a writer in China and feared he would end up serving time in jail for things he'd published. He said writers in China "live with a sword that could fall on our heads at any moment."

In July, another outspoken Chinese writer, Liao Yiwu, fled China for Germany after police repeatedly threatened him with imprisonment to prevent him from publishing any more of his controversial works overseas. Liao, best known for "The Corpse Walker," a series of interviews with people on the margins of Chinese society, said after arriving in Berlin that he was happy to move to a place where he could "speak and publish freely."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said he was unaware of Yu and reports of his departure.

"The Chinese population is so large I don't know every one of them," Liu said. "I don't know this person and I don't know how many people regard him as a famous writer."