Chinese Leader Sued in New York Over Deaths Stemming From Tiananmen Crackdown
By EDWARD WONG (The New York Times)
Five veterans of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement are suing Li Peng, the chairman of China’s National People’s Congress, in a federal court in New York for human rights abuses stemming from his role in the military crackdown that killed hundreds of civilians in Beijing.
It is the first time that such a legal action has been taken in this country against a Chinese official.
The civil suit was filed on Monday in federal district court in Manhattan by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal group that specializes in human rights cases. Among the five plaintiffs are Wang Dan, a student leader of the Tiananmen demonstrations, and Zhang Liming, whose sister was shot dead by army troops who overran Tiananmen Square in the chaotic early morning hours of June 4, 1989.
Mr. Li, who is in New York this week attending a conference of the world’s parliaments at the United Nations, was served with a court summons yesterday morning at the Waldorf Towers in midtown Manhattan. The summons was handed by a process server to an employee of the United States State Department who was guarding Mr. Li.
In Washington today, a State Department spokesman said, “We are not in a position to accept such a document on behalf of a foreign official.” However, earlier this week, Judge Richard Casey ruled that a federal employee guarding Mr. Li could accept the summons, given the difficulty of reaching Mr. Li.
The lawsuit charges that Mr. Li, who was prime minister during the Tiananmen massacre, was responsible for “crimes against humanity, including summary execution, arbitrary detention, torture and other torts.”
“We want to prove that he is accountable for the crime, and that this kind of crime, the human rights violation, is beyond China’s borders,” said Xiao Qiang, executive director of Human Rights in China, a New York-based group that brought together the plaintiffs with lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights in anticipation of Mr. Li’s visit to New York.
Zhang Yuanyuan, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, did not return calls.
The first such across-the-border lawsuit was brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights in 1979, when an opposition leader in Paraguay, whose son was killed by the authorities, sued the chief of police in Asunción, the capital city. Although the plaintiffs were living in Paraguay, the defendant was residing in Brooklyn at the time. In 1984, a federal court ruling awarded $10.4 million to the family.
Since then, dozens of these civil suits have been filed in the United States. Several have resulted in favorable rulings for the plaintiffs, including one in a federal court in Boston in 1994 that found an Indonesian general responsible for a 1991 massacre in East Timor, ordering him to pay $14 million. In 1996, a federal court in Manhattan found a Hutu leader in Rwanda liable for $110 million in damages stemming from the genocide in that country.
In none of the cases has any money been collected. But if the federal court in Manhattan found in favor of the plaintiffs in the case against Mr. Li, it would be the first time that a representative of the Chinese government had been found legally culpable in the Tiananmen massacre. The government continues to insist that the student-led demonstrations of 1989 constituted
a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” that justified the military action.
“The Chinese perception of this will be that, once again, we are attempting to interfere in what they view as a domestic matter,” said Bob Berring, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley who studies the Chinese legal system. “But for the human rights community, they have to seize on an opportunity like this to put human rights issues on the table.”
The legal basis for the lawsuit comes from the Alien Tort Claims Act, passed in 1789, and the Torture Victim Protection Act, passed in 1992, said Jennie Green, the lead lawyer representing the plaintiffs. The two statutes allow human rights victims to file for claims in United States courts even if both the plaintiffs and the defendants live in another country. The only requirement is that the defendant be presented with a court summons while in the United States.
For Mr. Li, that took place early yesterday morning, when a private detective and a process server retained by Human Rights in China walked up to a half-dozen plainclothes police officers standing outside an entrance to the Waldorf Towers. After a tense wait, a supervising officer called for one of the State Department guards.
Mr. Li has 20 days to answer the summons. He is scheduled to leave the United States on Friday.
Ms. Green said that Mr. Li does not qualify for diplomatic immunity since he is not an appointed Chinese envoy to this country. A State Department official said that the immunity question is not relevant yet, but that lawyers will examine it if necessary.
Hours after Mr. Li was served, Mr. Zhang sat in the offices of Human Rights in China and held up pictures of his slain sister.
“This is something that my family has been working toward, even while I was back in China,” said Mr. Zhang, who came here in 1997 and works as a cook in San Diego. “I hope to continue with the legal procedure to further the interests of my family. But what benefit will come out of that, I’m not sure.”