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For jailed artist's family, Chinese justice is little more than revenge

A Chinese police officer stands guard in front of Tiananmen Square in this 2009 file photo.

Vincent Thian/The Associated Press

Even in the often-dark world of Chinese police work, it is an unusual perversion of justice. An artist goes into a local police station to raise a complaint about a friend's landlord, is detained and beaten for his trouble, and then is himself charged with obstructing justice.

Calgary native Karen Patterson finds herself struggling to make sense of exactly such a Kafkaesque turn of events. Her husband, avant-garde artist Wu Yuren, is now awaiting trial and could spend up to three years in jail after accompanying his friend to the police station in Beijing's Chaoyang district on May 31.

Ms. Patterson has seen her husband only once since that date. When she went to the police station the next morning to find out what had happened to him, Mr. Wu yelled to her from an open window that he'd been assaulted. A police officer slammed the window shut before he could say anything else. The 39-year-old Mr. Wu later told a lawyer he had been dragged into a room by four or five police officers - his shirt pulled over his head so he couldn't identify them - taunted and beaten.

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The police version of events, according to Ms. Patterson, is that it was Mr. Wu who attacked police after they took his cellphone away. Ms. Patterson said Mr. Wu paid for and received an X-ray after his encounter with the police that could provide evidence of what really happened, but the results have not been released to the family or its lawyers. Chaoyang district police have refused to comment on the case.

Ms. Patterson believes the bizarre chain of events that has landed her husband in jail stems from a bold public demonstration he led earlier this year through the centre of Beijing. In February, he and other artists marched down Chang'an Avenue to protest the encroachment of a real-estate developer on an arts district of the city. Chang'an Avenue runs through Tiananmen Square and the heart of the Chinese capital, making it a particularly sensitive place to stage a protest.

"What happened in the police station is revenge for what happened on Chang'an Avenue. The beating happened because of that," said Ms. Patterson, who moved to China 14 years ago and until recently ran a children's boutique in Beijing. Her husband has also spent time in Canada, having taught a six-week summer program on contemporary Chinese art at the University of Saskatchewan in 2004 and spending a semester as artist-in-residence at the University of Calgary two years later. The couple met in China.

A trial isn't expected for another three months, but a lawyer who visited Mr. Wu on Monday said he was in good spirits, and had repeated his denial that he had attacked any police officers. However, Ms. Patterson said she's been told to expect her husband will be convicted since very few Chinese trials - especially those with any kind of political element - end in acquittal.

Mr. Wu is also a signatory of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic change in China. The main author of Charter 08, Liu Xiaobo, was sentenced to 11 years in prison last December, and many other signatories have been interrogated.

Ai Weiwei, another prominent Chinese artist and activist, says the case illustrates how powerless ordinary citizens are before the law in China. "Wu Yuren is one of those cases where some stupid police at a very low level made a very stupid mistake, and now they're going to sentence Wu Yuren just to justify this decision," he said.

Despite her own pessimism about how the trial will end, Ms. Patterson says she is nonetheless determined to keep raising the profile of her husband's case. She has already written to everyone from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Fu Zhenghua, Beijing's new chief of police, in hopes that outside pressure might bring about a lighter sentence.

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"It sometimes feels a little like, 'Why are we doing all this?'" Ms. Patterson said. "But if it makes a difference between three years [in prison]and one year, or three years and two years, or maybe making sure the cops don't completely get away with it - something has to be done."

Particularly difficult, Ms. Patterson said, has been telling the couple's five-year-old daughter, Hannah, where her father has gone.

"She knows he's in a 'time-out' zone for a very long time. The hardest part is telling her when he'll be back, since I just don't know. She asked me a couple of weeks ago, 'Mama, why haven't you got Baba out yet?'"

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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