Celebrating 2021 Martin Ennals Award Winner Yu Wensheng
The first human rights defender to win the prestigious Martin Ennals Award, in 1994, was Harry Wu from China. This year's winner, announced tonight in Geneva, is also from China: Yu Wensheng.
Detained by the government since 2018, the 54-year old human rights lawyer from Beijing has fought at great personal cost for the rule of law, democracy, and governmental reform. Although his precise whereabouts are unknown, his wife reports that the government is holding him in solitary confinement and has subjected him to abuse that resulted in a crushed hand. In December, a regional High Court upheld his four-year prison sentence.
Global attention has recently focused on the repression of the Uighurs in west China, and rightly so. But terrible countrywide restrictions on political freedom also persist, and lawyers like Yu Wensheng have been at the forefront of resistance. After giving up a lucrative career as a corporate attorney, he worked on several high-profile human rights cases; for example, he defended human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, who was arrested in 2015 during a surge of repression called the 709 Crackdown. Yu Wensheng has also championed constitutional changes, an overhaul of the legal system, the abolition of the death penalty, and an end to one-party rule.
Before his last arrest, Yu said, “Based on the extraordinary current circumstances and my personal situation, and with me being in the dangerous place of Beijing, I’ve already made preparations for paying the price of losing my freedom again, or even my life.”
In January 2018, he published an open letter calling for political reform. The next day he was arrested while walking his 13-year-old son to school. The government convicted him in a secret trial and expelled him from the bar.
For nearly 30 years, the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders has brought crucial exposure to defenders working around the world on a range of human rights issues. For the last ten years, I’ve represented Human Rights First on the jury. As always, it was difficult to select just one defender out of so many worthy candidates. Yu Wensheng’s record of bold advocacy combined with the potential benefit of the award ultimately carried the day.
It’s our hope that the award will deliver a measure of protection to Yu Wensheng. Having worked with human rights activists all over the world, including former Ennals winners, and having gotten to know their families, I’ve seen the comfort and security that international awards can bring. Indeed, with the United States and other countries unable or unwilling to apply significant pressure on the Chinese government, publicity is all the more essential. Make no mistake: global attention on the plight of human rights defenders can save their lives.
Conversely, such a focus on defenders is a blow to their oppressors. I’m certain that Yu Wengsheng’s receiving the Ennals award will sting the authorities in China, who naturally go to lengths to deny and conceal their abuses. They disappear heroes like Yu Wesheng in hopes that people around the world will forget about them.
Please join us in telling the Chinese government that you remember and support Yu Wensheng. Help spread the news about this year’s magnificent Ennals award winner.