By BosNewsLife Asia Service
BEIJING, CHINA (BosNewsLife)– A prominent Chinese pastor is “barely alive” after suffering various forms of torture in prison, his family and activists say. Zhang Shaojie of Nanle Country Christian Church in Henan Province is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence which began in 2014.
His daughter, Esther Zhang Huixin, told the China Aid advocacy group that Pastor Zhang is suffering both mentally and physically as a result of meager food rations and sleep deprivation.
“They cruelly torture my father,” said Esther Zhang Huixin, who lives in the United States. “He’s unable to see the sun during the day. He’s deprived of sleep for 24 hours at a time. The prison gives him only one steamed bun a day and intentionally starves him. According to people who have been released from that prison, my father is barely alive, suffering both mentally and physically.”
Zhang Shaojie’s sister, Zhang Cuijuan, said that when she recently visited him in prison, he was in bad condition.
“He was in a terrible mental state. His eyes burned from sleep deprivation. He said that he is forbidden to sleep during ‘strict supervision.’ He was depressed, and I had no way to help him. The prison guard held the phone throughout our entire conversation, and we were forbidden to talk about his case.”
Pastor Zhang Shaojie was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment and given a fine of 100,000 yuan (nearly $15,000) fine in 2014 a for ‘fraud’ and for ‘gathering a crowd to disturb public order.’ Friends and family members have linked the charges to his Christian activities, and human rights work in a country where Communist authorities target groups deemed dangerous to their one-party power base.
Activists say he was detained without formal documentation in November 2013, along with over 20 members of Nanle County Christian Church.
The congregation is registered as part of the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM). Church members were reportedly detained after petitioning key authorities about a land dispute involving Nanle Church.
Some Christians say Zhang was jailed as part of efforts by authorities to replace him as head of the local TSPM, because he defended marginalized social groups.
Church members, lawyers, and Christians visiting the family of detained Protestant Pastor Zhang Shaojie were beaten, harassed and detained by “hired thugs”, police and government agencies in December 2013, according to Christians with close knowledge about the situation.
When Zhang’s trial reached court, his lawyers were reportedly detained. He had to dismiss them from the case amid concerns they were at risk of losing their licenses, trial observers said.
During court proceedings, lawyer Xia Jun reportedly questioned witness statements against Pastor Zhang, saying the statement of at least one witness was taken under duress, raising concerns about the rule of law.
Zhang’s lawyers were apparently not told about the date of his appeal in August 2014 or permitted to attend proceedings.
“In 2014, Pastor Zhang Shaojie was unjustly sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment and an extortionate fine,” said Mervyn Thomas, the chief executive of rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “Recent reports that he is on the verge of death after being tortured in prison would be an unacceptable abuse of human rights even if he were guilty,” he said.
“The deliberate ill-treatment of an unjustly sentenced pastor is an utterly grievous injustice, Thomas added. He said CSW had urged Chinese authorities “to stop the mistreatment of Pastor Zhang immediately and to review his sentence” and secure “his unconditional release.” He said it was crucial that China fully protects “the right to freedom of religion or belief.”
Chinese officials have not reacted, but they usually deny wrongdoing.