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Chinese rights lawyer, in exile in San Francisco: 'I was jailed before, and I know exactly what it was like'

Even as he began his life in exile in a cramped one-bedroom apartment with his wife and two children, Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Taihe was thankful that he is no longer losing any sleep.

“Before, I’d wake up in the middle of the night,” Chen said. “Now I sleep like a baby.”

The bouts of insomnia came after Chen and nearly 300 lawyers and their staff members were detained last summer during a mass roundup by the Chinese government.

In August, one of the lawyers and several activists were sentenced in China, and another was released after airing a confession in which she renounced her work representing clients with grievances against government officials. Chen said their words were coerced.

“I was jailed before, and I know exactly what it was like. So I can see that they’ve buckled under government pressure and would say anything out of the yearning to be freed,” Chen said. “All this is a show staged by the authorities. We all have been practicing law based on our conscience, and the respect for human dignity and justice. It’s absurd to say we colluded to overthrow the government.”

After 42 days of detention, at times with death row inmates, and an additional month of house arrest, Chen became the first Chinese national in nearly four years to be released into exile in the U.S. when he was put on a plane bound for San Francisco in March. Weeks into his detention, his pregnant wife and their 7-year-old son fled China on visas previously approved for Chen’s cultural exchange at a law school.

The 45-year-old law professor with salt-and-pepper hair said he hasn’t heard from his colleagues, because even those who were since freed still remain under electronic surveillance. He has managed to glean the goings-on from Chinese state media reports and on the social media platform WeChat.

Chen has worked on a case in Beijing with some of the lawyers still facing trial. All of them are accused of subverting the state, as was Chen.

“This is the government’s tactic to consolidate its power,” Chen said. “And the suppression on the lawyers has been effective.”

Wang Yu, a lawyer who is married to Chen’s onetime co-counsel, was set free this week after giving her confession on video. As a show of contrition, Wang rejected an award that the American Bar Assn. planned to bestow on her at its annual meeting Aug. 6.

“I know her as one of the bravest lawyers,” said Chen, now a visiting scholar at the University of California’s Hastings law school, adding that her sudden snub has caused the ABA some embarrassment.

A moderate legal scholar with no history of antagonizing the state, Chen has long been pushing for China to adopt the jury system. After studying juries in the U.S. and Britain in 2013, he led four Chinese lawyers to observe a jury trial at a Honolulu courthouse. It was the friendship he forged with a retired judge there that eventually helped win his freedom.

“We hit it off right away. He has an intense interest in the subject, in the idea of having citizens participate in the process,” said Shackley Raffetto, who as the chief trial judge in the 2nd Circuit in Maui, headed Hawaii’s jury reform committee. “He is trying to help his country. He loves China; he isn’t a radical.”

When Raffetto spotted Chen’s name on the list of lawyers in detention, he immediately started looking online for help for him and got in touch with the Dui Hua Foundation, a Bay Area nonprofit that advocates for prisoners of conscience in China.

“I hope the Chinese government will see the positive reaction to Chen’s release and resettlement and grant clemency and mercy to other lawyers,” said John Kamm, the foundation’s founder and executive director, declining to detail how he had secured Chen’s release. “Chen’s voice will go out, and it’ll reach many people. No one can stop that.”

The son of a railyard worker in southern China, Chen got a chance at a better education when his family moved to Guilin, in Guangxi province, a picturesque city that has long been a magnet for foreign tourists. Beginning from grade school there, Chen said, he became exposed to American values such as freedom, justice and equality. As a college freshman in the northern coastal city of Qingdao, he traveled 400 miles north by train to join the Tiananman Square student uprising of 1989.

Even as Chen is saddened by the hefty sentence handed down to his fellow human rights lawyers, his faith in legal advocacy is little shaken.

“China needs these lawyers to maintain stability and harmony,” Chen said. “When ordinary people have no choice but rise up in their own defense, those in power will reap what they’ve sowed: heightened social tension and chaos.”

Meanwhile, Chen plans to use his newfound freedom to conduct legal research to serve the interests of China and the United States, such as in the area of intellectual property rights. He said he hopes to return to his native country when it becomes more democratic.

His son, now 8, was often punished by his teachers in China for speaking his mind, Chen says; now, he relishes his newfound freedom to do so.

So his father teases him: “If you’re naughty, I’ll send you back to China.”

Law is a special correspondent.

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