BEIJING — Germany is calling on China to release a prominent human rights lawyer charged with inciting subversion, drawing a sharp rebuke from Beijing.
German Human Rights Commissioner Barbel Kofler this week said Yu Wensheng is innocent of wrongdoing and had only sought to campaign for democratic reforms and “support fellow citizens who were harassed for exercising their human rights.”
“I call on the Chinese government to release Yu Wensheng without delay, and to fully respect the civil rights guaranteed in the Chinese Constitution,” Kofler said in a statement posted on the website of the German Federal Foreign Office.
Asked about Kofler’s comments, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying gave no details about Yu’s case, but said China would “firmly oppose any foreign government or individual in an attempt to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
“The relevant German official is absolutely not qualified or entitled to ask China to release anyone involved,” Hua said.
Yu, an informal spokesman for a group of Chinese human rights lawyers, was grabbed by police on Jan. 19 while preparing to take his 13-year-old son to school.
Police informed Yu’s wife of the charge against him on Saturday, lawyer Huang Hanzhong said. Inciting subversion is a vaguely worded charge often used to muzzle dissent and sometimes results in years-long prison sentences.
Yu’s detention extends a crackdown on independent legal activists in recent years by China’s authoritarian one-party Communist government.
His seizure came a day after he posted a letter online calling on the ruling party to reform the constitution and allow open presidential elections.
“The president, the head of state, is basically appointed without any meaningful election. It has no credibility for the country, for civil society and for countries across the world,” Yu said in the letter.
Police searched Yu’s home and office and seized computers, USB drives, cellphones and files documenting cases that Yu had handled in recent years, Huang said.
Yu gained widespread attention after being detained for three months in 2014, during which he says he was tortured and questioned. He was detained again in 2015 but released after a day when his case received wide publicity.
China routinely dismisses attempts by foreign governments to intervene in civil rights cases and has extended its crackdown on civil society activists to foreign citizens.
Beijing has rejected calls by the U.S. and European governments to release Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen who sold gossipy tomes about Chinese leaders from his Hong Kong bookshop.
Around 10 Chinese police officers surrounded Gui and Swedish diplomats on Jan. 20 as they traveled by train to Beijing. Gui was seized and his whereabouts remain unknown.