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A petition for Hao Wu’s release… and some uncomfortable thoughts on habeas corpus

I haven’t written about Hao Wu’s detention for some time. Unfortunately, this is largely because we haven’t gotten much news about his detention and prospects for his release. Rebecca and I both had a hope that he’d be released prior to Hu Jintao’s visit to the US. As that visit draws closer, we’re not getting any news through his sister Nina that his release is imminent.

Nina’s wrestling with a set of emotions I can’t really imagine. In a recent, translated post, she notes that it’s forced her to examine her relatively comfortable “typical Shanghai ‘little capitalist’ life”:

I felt that I had the ability to control everything. I could choose the lifestyle I wanted; I could choose my circle of friends…in fact this was just what it looked like. It is so easy for someone to lose his or her privileges. An ordinary person can very easily be taken from his or her daily life. It doesn’t require any warning or reason, and of course it doesn’t require the assent of that person.

Now that she’s blogging about her brother’s detention, she believes she’s under surveillance by the Chinese authorities:

At the same time, I know that I already have lost my right to privacy. I know that they know my every movement. Actually, when you act magnanimously, there is nothing to conceal. I haven’t done anything that I’d be ashamed to show others. I will continue to strive for my brother’s early release. It’s just that I don’t know: when all the legal channels have been exhausted, will anything be left?

There are channels we’ve got access to that Nina doesn’t – they involve rallying as much attention to Hao’s situation as we can. With that in mind, we launched a letter writing and petition campaign today, asking everyone concerned about Hao’s detention to contact their national government, local newspapers and Chinese embassy. Even if you’re not able to do that, please take a moment and sign the petition asking Hu Jintao for our friend’s release.

Talking to a friend about the language of the petition, he pointed out that our government doesn’t have the greatest record in recent terms as concerns “habeas corpus” – the fundamental right for the detained to challenge his detention as occurring illegally. The Bush administration fought habeas writs from detainees at Guantanamo all the way to the Supreme Court. An excellent episode of This American Life, “Habeas Shmabeas” looks at just what a radical departure from American and British jurisprudence this recent disregard for habeas corpus is.

This uncomfortable (shameful, outrageous, infuriating) truth smacked up against the set of emotions I’d been feeling lately surrounding Hao Wu’s detention – a sense of profound gratitude for the strong protections of rights of free speech under the US constitution. Frustrated as I am with the Bush administration, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying that the writing I do online or the speeches I give are going to land me in indefinite detention… and my patience for people who argue that our government is as hostile to speech as China, Saudi Arabia or Myanmar is at an all time low.

At the same time, it’s a painful reminder that our treatment of non-citizens who’ve found themselves in our jurisdiction can find themselves in legal nightmares analagous to the one my friend faces in China. (And to fend off the obvious knee-jerk “but they’re all terrorists” response, please consider listening to Jack Hitt’s story on the This American Life piece, where he makes a convincing argument that many of the people detained in Guantanamo were brought to the US military in Afghanistan for substantial ransoms, not because they were found on the battlefield.)

1 thought on “A petition for Hao Wu’s release… and some uncomfortable thoughts on habeas corpus”

  1. Ethan,

    Habeas is a right very rooted in Anglo-American legal tradition (so you’ll be able to talk to people about it in Manila, which received American law during the U.S. colonial period); and it’s actually available to non-citizens in the U.S. as well. In fact, it’s how U.S. federal courts have been able to get to review cases filed by aliens about to be deported.


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