SCMP Jun 4, 2005

Stain that remains


Life in prison cannot be pleasant. For Yu Dongyue, 37, it is a living nightmare. Friends and family say the Chinese political dissident has been struck with electric batons, beaten by police and fellow inmates - he has a large scar on his right temple to prove it - was left standing, tied to a post, in the hot sun for days, and sat in solitary confinement for a gruelling two years.

The once bright man now babbles to his uncomprehending family during their visits, consumes his own urine and stools, and cannot recognise any of his friends or family - who say he is barely recognisable to them.

'His problem is quite serious, he has become deranged,' said Yu Zhijian, who went to prison with Yu, no relation, 16 years ago. 'He can't have normal conversations with people. He can't take care of himself. He talks to himself all day long.' Yu Zhijian was so shocked by his former classmate's appearance when he visited him in prison in 2001, he cried.

He recalls that other inmates were ordered by the police to beat Yu Dongyue in the early 1990s, and by the end of 1992, he had suffered a mental breakdown. He was then transferred to a prison hospital, where two other prisoners were put in charge of taking care of him. 'When they were not happy, they beat him,' Mr Yu said.

'People who have seen him [recently] told me he was very dirty, his body was swollen and he didn't recognise his parents or siblings,' he said. 'His nerve is totally broken and his health is terrible. Few prisoners in China are as bad as he is.'

'We talked over the phone in the meeting room behind the glass,' said Wu Pinghua, his mother, who last saw him at the end of last year. 'He was talking in English and I couldn't understand him. When he talked to his younger sister, he was also speaking English.'

Yu Dongyue's nightmare goes back to May 19, 1989, when the journalist and art critic with the Liuyang News in Hunan province, along with childhood friend Yu Zhijian and Lu Decheng, a bus driver, jumped on a train bound for Beijing, where pro-democracy demonstrations had reached a feverish level.

After arriving at the capital, the three men hit upon the idea of making a bold gesture. Their target was the huge portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs over the entrance to the Forbidden City. On May 23, the three loaded empty eggshells with red paint and hurled them at the portrait, splattering it with red paint.

As the paint ran down the face of the communist icon, the trio were grabbed by student demonstrators apparently intent on distancing themselves from the incident. After a lengthy negotiation, the students decided to turn them over to public security officials.

Two months later, the men were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. Yu Dongyue, who was convicted of 'sabotage' and 'counter-revolutionary propaganda', received a 20-year sentence on July 11. He was also accused of participating in demonstrations in his home province and, according to Reporters Sans Frontieres, of having 'very avant-garde views on art'.

Lu got 16 years and Yu Zhijian a life sentence. Human Rights in China said these were among the harshest sentences given to 1989 democracy activists. Many of the leaders of the 1989 movement were out of prison within six years, although anywhere from 80 to 250 people arrested at the time remain in prison.

'Their action had a huge significance,' said Ren Wanding, who spent 11 years in prison for advocating democracy in China, including seven years for his involvement in the 1989 movement. 'Mao's portrait is very important. It's the highest symbol of prestige of the Communist Party, the government, and the political system, so they were punished the hardest.'

Mr Ren also says the fact that the students handed the three over to the police gave the government carte blanche to deal with them. 'The students did a very foolish thing,' he said, shaking his head. 'It showed their immaturity. They didn't understand.'

Mr Lu and Yu Zhijian were released from prison in 1998, butthey remained the target of official persecution, they said.

Yu Dongyue last month marked his 16th year in prison. No one has an explanation for why he is still in prison when his accomplices have already been released, seven years ago.

Mr Lu and Yu Zhijian have repeatedly written to the central government in an attempt to get their friend released on medical grounds, but with no success.

Ms Wu said she applied for medical parole for her son about 10 years ago, but that prison officials told the family that political criminals could not be granted medical probation. 'We were told that he didn't behave himself in prison, that he never admitted he was wrong,' she said from her home in Hunan. 'He is deranged. He has been like this for years,' she said. 'But the prison officials say he is faking it.'

Yu Zhijian denied that his friend was playing a game. 'Nobody really believes he is faking it,' he said. 'That's just an excuse.'

Ms Wu said she had heard that she could buy his way out with money, but this was out of the question for the farming family. 'We don't have a lot of money,' she said. 'My youngest son was getting married. I stopped thinking about him [Yu Dongyue]. I thought to myself, I don't have a son. He was lost at birth.'

Yu Zhijiang speculated that the government would be embarrassed if news of Yu Dongyue's treatment leaked out. 'They must be worried about other people seeing him like this,' he said. 'The prison will be blamed for this.'

Mr Ren agreed. 'If it became known that Yu has a mental problem, it would not look good for the government,' he said.

Having exhausted all options and under intense pressure at home, Mr Lu fled China for Thailand last November to try to drum up international support for Yu's release.

On November 12, he released a statement written by himself and Yu Zhijiang, called 'Our views on the student leaders in the 1989 pro-democracy movement', which expressed an understanding of what the student leaders did to them, and which appealed for help for Yu Dongyue.

While in hiding, Mr Lu met with Lilian Cheung, a reporter for Radio Free Asia's (RFA) Cantonese service. Mr Lu told Cheung that he and four others visited Yu Dongyue at the Hunan No1 Prison in 2001 and found their former friend 'almost unrecognisable'.

'He had a totally dull look in his eyes, and he kept repeating words over and over again as if he were chanting a mantra. He didn't recognise anyone,' Mr Lu told RFA, adding that his old friend 'had been tortured to the point of psychosis'.

Mr Lu expressed concern that Yu Dongyue was not receiving medical care and that his condition might worsen, adding that he and Yu Zhijiang were 'in great pain over this'.

Mr Lu's efforts to free Yu Dongyue came to a quick and abrupt end when he was arrested by plainclothes Thai police on December 12 at a Catholic church in Bangkok, along with several other Chinese dissidents. A friend of Mr Lu's told RFA that Chinese embassy officials were with Thai police when they raided the meeting at the church.

Mr Lu has applied to the UNHCR to be classified as a refugee and is waiting to be interviewed, but Gilbert Guo, a democracy activist based in the San Francisco Bay area, said that Thai authorities have not allowed UNHRC officials access to conduct a formal interview to determine his eligibility.

'The Thai government may have acted this way under diplomatic pressure from the PRC embassy there to deport Lu back to China,' said Mr Guo, who has been in contact with Mr Lu since his detention in December. The activist said volunteer lawyers with the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development in Bangkok had obtained a court order for the release of Mr Lu to their custody, but the immigration authorities had refused to obey the order.

Mr Lu has stated publicly that if Thailand insisted on sending him to China, he would die rather than go back. The US government and international human rights organisations are now lobbying hard for his release.

According to the Dui Hua Foundation in San Francisco, Yu Dongyue was given a two-year sentence reduction in 2000 and a 15-month reduction in 2003. His sentence is expected to expire on February 26, 2006. 'I'm now pushing hard for a commutation or immediate release,' said John Kamm, the head of the foundation, who has helped a number of people gain early release from Chinese prisons.

Yu Zhijian said irreversible damage had already been done to his friend. 'He was extremely gifted,' he said. 'He was a very talented man. It's so pathetic. The lengthy jail term will end eventually, but his situation cannot be reversed. His illness won't be cured.'