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Chinese human rights campaigner Harry Wu dies

A former prisoner of conscience, Wu exposed the brutality of China's prison camps

ucanews.com reporter, Beijing

ucanews.com reporter, Beijing

Published: April 27, 2016 10:47 AM GMT

Updated: April 27, 2016 10:50 AM GMT

Chinese human rights campaigner Harry Wu dies

Chinese human rights campaigner Harry Wu, seen in this 2011 photo, died April 26. He was 79. (Photo by Nina Lincoff/Medill News Service via Flickr/CCBY2.0)

Harry Wu, a Catholic and well-known human rights campaigner who exposed the brutality of China's prison camp system, has died. He was 79.

Wu died while on vacation with friends in Honduras on April 26, said Ann Noonan, an administrator at the Washington D.C.-based Laogai Research Foundation founded by Wu.

"Harry Wu spoke out for international labor rights and religious freedom, and against the death penalty, forced organ harvesting and China's brutal one-child policy," Noonan said in a statement.

Known for lobbying in defense of Chinese rights, Wu himself was sentenced to 19 years in a Chinese prison camp after criticizing Beijing's then-ally the Soviet Union for its invasion of Hungary in 1956.

He was sent to 12 different laogai — reform through labor prison camps — where he was put to work mining coal, farming and building roads. Torture, beatings and starvation were routine, he said later.

"I was 23, a college graduate raised in an affluent urban family, and a political criminal," he wrote in Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag.

Released after serving his full sentence in 1979, and after the death of Mao and the Reform and Opening period under new leader Deng Xiaoping, Wu was politically rehabilitated and took up a teaching position at the Geoscience University in Beijing.

In 1985, he took a place as a visiting scholar at the University of California Berkeley, writing later that he only had US$40 in his pocket when he arrived. He spent the rest of his life living in the U.S.

Wu set up the Laogai Research Foundation in 1992 and began lobbying U.S. politicians to hold Beijing accountable for a system that tortured thousands and used forced labor to produce goods on sale across the globe as China's economy boomed.

"It was Wu who let the world understand the problem of labor camps through his persistent concern about this issue," said Lee Cheuk-yan, vice-chair of Labor Party in Hong Kong.

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As Wu's condemnation of the Chinese Communist Party expanded to other policies, Beijing grew increasingly intolerant.

In 1995, by-then a citizen of the U.S., Wu was arrested upon entering China, convicted for "stealing state secrets," sentenced to 15 years in prison and held for 66 days before authorities deported him back to the U.S. following intervention from Washington D.C.

Although China abolished the laogai and in 2013 also ended laojiao — reform through education — rights groups have warned in recent years that arbitrary detention facilities persist in China under different guises. Wu was considered a pioneer in exposing them all.

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