Updated: Exclusive: Incarcerated pastor reports torture in prison for attempting court appeal

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Zhang Shaojie
(Photo: ChinaAid stock)

Updated at 3:01 p.m. on July 20, 2017

(Xinxiang, Henan—June 24, 2017) An imprisoned Christian pastor is struggling to stay alive after his prison was ordered to torture him using various methods, including starvation and sleep deprivation, ChinaAid learned recently.

Zhang Huixin, who currently lives in America under her English name, Esther Zhang, sent ChinaAid a desperate appeal on behalf of her father, Nanle County Church pastor Zhang Shaojie. He has been in Xinxiang Prison of Henan Province for almost four years, serving a 12-year sentence.

Nanle County Church was an officially sanctioned branch of China’s government-run Protestant Churches, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Zhang Shaojie was one of the first Three-Self pastors to be sentenced like this since the time of the Cultural Revolution.

When Zhang Shaojie’s church became involved in a land dispute with the county government in 2013, he led a group of Christians to Beijing to file a petition. The trip angered local officials, who conspired to have him detained on November 16, 2013 and eventually charged him with “swindling” and “assembling a crowd to disrupt the public order” on July 4, 2014.

Recently, after an unsuccessful attempt to appeal his sentence in August 2014, Zhang Shaojie began the appeal process again, a move which brought the wrath of his prison down upon him.

“My father applied to file an appeal,” Esther Zhang said, “but the government officials said that they would not process the appeal unless he would plead guilty. They are treating him harshly in order to bend him.”

According to Esther Zhang, the recently appointed director of the Henan Provincial Prison Management Bureau, Wen Songshan, received an order to torture Zhang Shaojie from the secretary of the Development Research Center of the State Council, Huang Shouhong.

The prison began a policy of what they call “strict supervision” for Zhang Shaojie, which includes the infliction of several different kinds of torture.

“They cruelly torture my father,” Esther Zhang said. “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 her brother in prison he was in poor 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.”

Esther Zhang said that family members were only allowed to visit once a month for 30 minutes. “During the visits, we can’t tell him anything. We were only allowed to greet each other. (The guards) would immediately cut off the phone if he complained about life in prison or how they starved him. The guards watched us closely. My father was forbidden from telling me anything of the prison and I was forbidden from telling him of anything of the outside.”

Zhang Shaojie is a member of ChinaAid’s campaign for prisoners of conscience, the China 18. His case has been adopted by Congressman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).

Esther Zhang hopes that her testimony will raise awareness about her father’s condition and pressure China to release him. On June 26, she was interviewed by a ChinaAid reporter, the transcript of which can be found below.

ChinaAid supports prisoners of conscience such as Zhang Shaojie, as well as their families, in order to combat the persecution inflicted by the Chinese government and expose abuses against Chinese Christians.

Interview with Esther Zhang

Q: Hi, thank you for agreeing to come and talk to me more about the appeal you wrote. I’m also just going to get some background story just in case we have some new people who aren’t as familiar with your father’s case. My first question is what kind of person is your father? I know that he has helped people in the church with their human rights issues. Could you maybe explain a little bit about that?

A: Yes, he’s a pastor from Henan province. We have a big church. They have more than 8,000 members. We are growing very fast, and my father helped so many members in the town.

Q: Do you think a lot of the persecution happened because of the growth of the church? Is that why they took him in?

A: Yeah, and we have a big place with a deed. The government wants the deed. They want to keep the deed and give us another bad place, so we don’t want to change (locations). We want something that is the same price as that place, and the government still hates that. That’s why, after they caught my father, they found all of my family member’s homes and the church member’s homes and tried to find the deed. Now, we still have the deed … Until now, they still want my father to say he is a fool and want him to bring the deed. If he brings the deed to the government, and they say something is wrong, the government might say they can talk to each other, but now, my father is saying, “No, I’m right. There’s nothing wrong with me, and I don’t want to give you my deed.” That’s maybe why my father (went to prison), and until now they still have closed our church.

Q: So the church is not meeting in one place? Is that what that means? Do you have people meeting in different homes, like smaller groups?

A: Yes. We have a bigger church and another 36 home churches together. Now, they have closed the biggest one, and another two home churches are growing.

Q: So it’s still rapidly growing?

A: Yes, but there’s no pastor.

Q: So do the people teach, then? Like the people who are in the congregation?

A: Yes.

Q: I think in America, we’re just so used to the freedom, that we have no concept of that or what that would be like. On the topic of the church, I was doing some research. It sounds like it used to be a house church, and then it was forced to become a Three-Self Church?

A: It’s a Three-Self Church, yes, but now the government has closed it, and we have opened up as a house church without the government.

Q: Okay, so right now, it is a house church, but before it was a Three-Self Church, when your father was pastoring it?

A: Yes.

Q: So I read also that your father helped people who were persecuted by the government. Was that a difficulty for him? Because he was also the president of the local Three-Self Patriotic Movement, right?

A: Yes.

Q: They took your dad on Nov. 16, 2013, right?

A: Nov. 16, yes.

Q: Can you describe that day to me in your own words?

A: About now or before?

Q: Before, but if you want to add details about now, too, that’s fine.

A: ChinaAid has a video that shows the day when they caught my father and brought him away. There were so many cars, and my father is wearing some different clothes.

Q: A few days after your father was arrested, you and your husband and your baby daughter left Nanle County, and the officials were calling you and making threats against your family, right?

A: Before I left, they caught me and the baby and put us in jail. She was just 13 months old. Then, she wasn’t talking yet, but they had a very small window, and she showed it to me as if to say, “Mommy, look! We can go that way to leave!” They had five ladies watching us, and when they looked in, nobody felt sorry for me. Outside of the door, there were four men, and it was just me and the baby. They had nine people watching us.

Q: And there’s nothing you did wrong! You’re just a mom with a baby!

A: And I cannot run from there. There were so many doors, and they were all locked. There were four cameras, and no way to run, and yet they still used five ladies and four men (inaudible). At that time, it was a good thing that I had my Bible with me. It was in my bag, and I read my Bible. At that time, I prayed and said, “Okay, I can stay here half a year or one year.”

Q: With a little baby! You’re very brave. I can’t imagine that.

A: I said, “I’m very thankful to have the baby with me.” Then I read the Bible in there, and they laughed at me, saying “If there’s a God, He will let you out! He will take you out!” Then, they laughed at me, but I still stayed there. God was with me (inaudible). I felt safe.

Q: So you weren’t really scared at all. You felt the presence of God with you. You felt that God was protecting you.

A: Yeah, I didn’t feel very scared, but after, when I’m here, I dream that every night the government has caught me. If I hear a door opening in the middle of the night, I’m scared! When my husband goes to the restroom and opens the door, I am like *startled noise*. I wake up like that.

Q: I’m sorry. So even though you weren’t scared then, it’s really kind of crept into your life. It affects the way you sleep. I can’t imagine. That’s got to be awful.

A: They just stopped me as I was driving (out of Nanle County), and they told me “Get out!” And I got out, and the police drove my car and left. The next day, I asked the police station, “Where’s my car?” and the police said, “Oh, we don’t know where your car is. Where is your car?”

Q: They took the car!

A: And then the police said, “Where’s the paperwork?” And they said, “There’s no paperwork.” Without paperwork, of course it’s not the police!

Q: Yeah, they can’t do anything without showing ID or paperwork, right?

A: Yeah, they just stopped me again, and I got out of the car to leave.

Q: So was this when you were running away from Nanle County? You were driving the car, and then they pulled you over?

A: Yeah. They let me stop and pull over to the side.

Q: That’s incredible. So they were following you?

A: No. They just stopped me on the way. They found me.

Q: The officials were calling and making threats against your family afterwards (in order to get you to stop advocating for your father). You obviously have still done a lot of advocating for your dad. How did you get the strength to do that again?

A: My family can visit him on the last Friday of every month for 30 minutes.

Q: So they’ll be visiting him pretty soon, right? At the end of June. This Friday, maybe? Next Friday?

A: Last Friday. And the lawyer can see him once per month, but the lawyer is so busy that he cannot visit him for awhile (inaudible) … I told (ChinaAid reporter’s name taken out for security reasons), do you know him?

Q: Yes.

A: I told him that people who have come out of the prison have told me that my father is bad, and another said that my family said my father is bad.

Q: So that’s something that the officials are telling other people in the prison? That’s ridiculous.

A: It’s so difficult for my father right now. When my father meets with my family, he always says, “I don’t think I can live until tomorrow.” He says that they will not let him sleep for 24 hours at a time, and they will only give him (a steamed bun) to eat for one day. No salt, veggies, or meat. Nothing. And he has one small, single room to himself, and he cannot go outside for 24 hours. No sleep, and (the officials play a) loud noise that will not allow him to sleep, so it’s really, really, really bad.

Q: I think you actually answered my next question, then, because we have people who will write in or call and say, “Oh, how is Zhang Shaojie doing?” You have a lot of people praying for you guys, and they really do care, and so if you could give me an update that I could give to them, that would be really good.

A: Sometimes, the prison is very cold. Last year, I went to D.C. for a meeting, and at that time, nobody (inaudible) to the government. So at that time, my father was not very bad. We could make sure that he was healthy and could sleep. He worked in the prison clinic, so it was easy, and he could read the Bible, so we just made sure he was fine. In this short period of time—one month—the situation got really, really bad.

Q: You mentioned in your appeal that they have a new head of the prison? Do you think the new head of the prison has made it worse?

A: He’s a new person who works at the prison, and I don’t think the prison head did anything wrong. It’s not his fault, but maybe the higher authorities from the Beijing government let him do things to my father. He’s new there, has never met my father before, and has never known my father’s case, but maybe he wants to do some special things that will tell the Beijing government, “See, I can do something to him.”

Q: So you think he’s trying to prove himself?

A: Maybe the Beijing government lets him do these things. Maybe he does it by himself to show to the Beijing government. Who knows? I don’t know.

Q: That’s scary, because people can be so bad sometimes, and you really don’t know what kind of person you’re going to interact with until they’re there.

A: And my father, when he’s in there, doesn’t know what’s happening outside, such as how many pastors and lawyers are in prison. He knows nothing about the outside. He talks to my family and just says, “Are you okay?” “I’m okay.” “Are you okay?” “I’m okay.” Just that. When we want to talk about the church, the police stop us. They’ll say, “You cannot say that,” and “You cannot say that.” My father can just ask “How is Esther?” and then my family will just tell him that I’m good, so he doesn’t know what I am doing or what is happening in the outside world. The officers told him, “Nobody cares about you” and “Nobody wants you.”

Q: I’m sure you know that’s really not true. It’s not true that no one cares about him. Because, like I said, we get people contacting me a lot, asking how he is and praying for him. It’s actually really cool, because we’ll just get random people who say, “Oh, my prayer group at my church is praying for Zhang Shaojie,” and a lot of people really want him free. So even though the officials will tell you guys that people don’t care about you, that’s completely not true. We care. Other people care.

A: I know. My father sometimes can call my family once a month for six minutes. Some months he can and some months he can’t. The last time he called me was in February. He cannot call me, but he can call my mom. My mom used WeChat video to call me. Then, I could talk with my father through the screen on the phone that he called on. I said, “I already helped you, and I have already been to the White House. I had a meeting there, but they stopped it.”

Q: They stopped the meeting?

A: No, (the officials) stopped the call. They stopped my father’s call. My father said (inaudible), and then the phone went dead.

Q: And so you think that they’re really trying to get your father to believe that no one else cares about him?

A: My father has already gone crazy, but nobody has given him pills. They just let him give up.

Q: That would be a very hard situation for anyone to be in. What do you hope to accomplish with the appeal? I know you said your father’s release, but do you have a goal for it, like certain people you want to see it?

A: Of course I want my father free! And I don’t know what I should do or where I can go and who can help me or who I can talk to. I just don’t know. I need to pray for him.

Q: We can pray for him, and (ChinaAid president) Bob Fu has a lot of connections.

A: Yes! I sent Bob many messages, saying, “Please help, because my father said it is very difficult to live there. Maybe, the next day, he cannot see the sunshine and walk. He said if he has no family and no church, he must be dying.”

Q: And it must be really hard to live that alone and that out of the sunlight. So hopefully someone will see the appeal, and we have Congressmen that follow us, so hopefully we can find someone who knows what to do.

A: I know the American government is so busy with American issues, but we still really need the help.

Q: Did you hear about the last time ChinaAid was in D.C. and how the delegation got to meet with the Special Assistant to President Trump? They have a lot of people to care for, but there’s also a lot of people who care

A: Yes! Good, good. That’s good. Better than Obama.

Q: Do you have any plans to help your father further, other than the appeal?

A: In China, if our church and family does anything, the government can catch us without paperwork, so we can do nothing to help. We just made a group and update it everyday for people who want to pray for my father and for my family. We can only think of that. And also, I am just myself, and I still have ChinaAid. That’s my plan, and then my family’s plan is to pray.

Q: And that’s a good plan. I think that people sometimes wish they could do more, but they forget that when they pray, they’re appealing to the highest authority.

A: Yeah, and God can work in the situation. My father is on God’s side. Just in the middle of the situation, he needs help. Who knows? God is there.

Q: If God can change the hearts of the Egyptian rulers in the Bible, He can change the hearts of people in China, right?

A: Yes, I believe that!

Q: A lot of times we get people who ask what they can do to help. As someone who has actually been in that situation, what would you say is the most helpful for you?

A: We need to think about the Chinese government and what they’re afraid of. They’re scared of the news (of their abuses) getting bigger, so we need to do something to help the news get bigger. So everybody can pray for us first, and secondly, use Facebook to copy and send the news to another person. The government cannot delete Facebook and Twitter.

Q: So you think that just spreading the news on social media is helpful. And it’s a good time in the world right now to do that because everyone has their own little internet platform, and everyone can be their own news source.

A: If I have a chance to go to D.C. or something to show that my father is bad right now, I’d be glad to go.

Q: You’d do anything, right?

A: Yeah. I would go to prison if it let him out!

Q: Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you would like other people to know?

A: Just try to find a way to make more people know. If more people know, maybe the Chinese government will be scared that so many people know that bad things have happened to my father. Maybe my father will not be freed, but maybe it will help him a little bit to get more food.

Q: The media pressuring worked for Zhang Kai, right? He was released after getting a lot of international attention.

A: Yes!

Q: Do you have anything else that you would like to say?

A: No.

Q: Okay, that’s the end of my questions, then. Thank you for coming to talk to me!

Esther Zhang's appeal

My father is Zhang Shaojie. He was one of the first Christian church leaders from the Three-Self Church to be sentenced in recent years. Because our local Christian church in Henan grew rapidly, my father frequently defended the rights of his congregation and the church’s land. He was secretly imprisoned for this on Nov. 16, 2013. After two months of being missing, lawyers were able to meet with my father at a local detention center because of ChinaAid’s help, and because people from all walks of life called out. We exerted much effort to appeal for my father, hoping he will be released. Afterwards, in July 2014, my father was sentenced to 12 years in prison for fraud, without announcement. We have continuously not given up appealing and have persistently gone to see my father every month to ensure that he is in good spirits and that he is healthy.

However, this month, a new department head took office at the Henan Provincial Department of Justice. After taking office, he severely persecuted my father. There are more than 4,000 prisoners in Xinxiang Prison, more than 30 of which have not plead guilty. My father is in Section 20, which has more than 380 people, two of which have not plead guilty. My father is one of them.

Previously, when he was in prison, the days were a bit better due to ChinaAid’s appeals and the American government’s intervention. Recently, the Henan Judicial Bureau’s new bureau chief considers the Nanle case very sensitive and specifically persecutes my father in order to obtain a confession. Therefore, my father’s days are not good, and he is not allowed to eat bread or sleep at night. For 24 hours every day, he is not allowed to see the sun.

Under these conditions, a healthy person can become a sick person or die within several days because of the persecution.

The only method of resistance our Chinese church and family members have is prayer—praying for my father and praying that the American government will help him.

The Bible has continuously comforted me by saying those who receive persecution are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. However, today my father’s work on earth is still incomplete, and they must not persecute him until he dies.

I also know that the Trump Administration has done numerous righteous things, and I have also seen that the new administration has done many effective things for human rights.

When I urgently pray for my father, I also earnestly request that the U.S. government extend a helping hand to free my father. I am filled with hope in you. I hope that within my lifetime I have the opportunity to show my father filial piety, and I also hope that I can see him soon.

Esther Zhang, who requests help from (location details omitted for safety)

ChinaAid Media Team
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