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Wives of Chinese dissidents seek US help at hearing

WASHINGTON — Wives of human rights lawyers persecuted by China urged the Trump administration Thursday to press the communist government to free detainees and end the use of torture.

Four of the women made a unique joint appearance at a congressional hearing. Two others spoke in a pre-recorded video message shown to lawmakers. All those who had been able to contact their husbands alleged they had suffered harsh treatment in Chinese detention, including torture.

It's doubtful their appeals will gain traction with President Donald Trump, who has dialed back U.S. human rights criticism of China while seeking its co-operation on trade and North Korea. Trump also has shifted from an initially confrontational stance on the touchy issue of Taiwan, which China regards as part of its territory. Taiwan split from the mainland in 1949 and is self-governing.

Thursday's hearing of a House foreign affairs panel was chaired by Republican Rep. Chris Smith, an arch-critic of Beijing. It focused on the plight of around 250 lawyers and legal assistants detained in a 2015 crackdown by Chinese authorities. Most were released, but four were convicted on charges of subversion and a dozen others remain detained, likely to face trial, Smith said.

Smith condemned what he called Chinese President Xi Jinping's effort to "eviscerate" a network of human rights lawyers as he tightens his grip on power. He said a new U.S. human rights law should be used to impose sanctions on Chinese officials complicit in torturing detainees.

Among the women testifying in person was Chen Guiqiu, who fled to the U.S. with her two daughters in March after publicizing an account of how her lawyer husband Xie Yang was tortured in custody with repeated beatings, starvation and dehydration.

Authorities last week released Xie after nearly two years of detention. But Chen said Xie hasn't regained freedom. He is on bail and "national security agents follow him wherever he goes," she said.

Also released was lawyer Li Heping. His wife, Wang Qiaoling, said in the video message that when Li got out he "looked 20 years older and was extremely skinny." During custody, Wang said, her husband spent a whole month continuously shackled with handcuffs and fetters that prevented him from standing straight.

Lawmakers also heard from the wife of the first Taiwanese activist in years to be detained in China on security charges. The case has inflamed already high tensions between China and Taiwan.

Lee Chin-yu pleaded for the U.S. government to pressure China to free her husband, Lee Ming-che, who was detained March 19 during a visit to the mainland. He has previously conducted online lectures on Taiwan's democratization and managed a fund for families of political prisoners in China.

His wife argued that the Taiwan Relations Act means Washington must "preserve and enhance the human rights of the people of Taiwan." The law guides U.S. policy toward the island.

Another who testified is Li Wenzu, the wife of Wang Quanzhang. Wang had defended members of the Falun Gong meditation sect banned by China and was charged with subversion last year. Li said in the video that her husband is being held without access to family or lawyers and she doesn't know "whether he is still alive."

The other witnesses were Jin Bianling, the wife of Jiang Tianyong, an activist who publicized the plight of the lawyers' families but was then detained himself last November; and Wang Yanfeng, the wife of democracy campaigner Tang Jingling, who is serving a five-year prison sentence for subversion.

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