L.A. family seeks China’s mercy

Times Staff Writers

Wo Weihan is accused of spying for Taiwan and awaits execution in a prison hospital.

With weeks or even days left before his final appeal could be exhausted, a worldwide campaign to save the 58-year-old father of three stretches from the Chinese capital to Pasadena, where a family in-law whom Wo met only once is trying to generate support in the U.S. to halt his execution.

“Just because this is happening on the other side of the world, it doesn’t mean we don’t feel connected,” said Erica Rolufs, 33, a communications manager for Pasadena Water and Power. “They’re family.”

The Rolufses’ campaign has brought Wo a degree of international attention, including an appeal from the U.S. Embassy, that is rare for death row inmates in China. Whether that attention will save his life remains unknown. Family members initially waged their campaign privately for fear of angering Chinese officials.


China routinely executes far more prisoners than any other nation -- generally in secrecy and with little if any outside scrutiny. The exact number is secret. About 8,000 people were executed in 2006, according to the official New China News Agency. The number of cases has fallen by 15%, a senior legal official said in 2007.

Amnesty International, a human rights group, said China had 470 executions in 2007 based on public reports, or about 38% of the known global totals, but said this is an absolute minimum.

Wo’s case might have gone unnoticed but for his Chinese-born daughter, Ran Chen, an Austrian citizen who is married to Michael Rolufs, an American from New Orleans with siblings in Southern California.

The couple were living in Austria when they learned of Wo’s arrest in 2005. They have since moved to Beijing to fight for Wo’s life, an effort that is reaching its final gasp now that the case is being reviewed by China’s Supreme People’s Court.


The Austrian Embassy has asked China to reconsider the death sentence and the U.S. Embassy has called for a full legal review at the request of Wo’s family, who have spent the last year contacting elected officials for help. There has been next to no contact with Wo in the last three years.

Wo’s case highlights the continued concerns over China’s justice system at a time when Beijing has made strides to reform its use of capital punishment. Family members say that Wo, a biomedical researcher in Beijing, wasn’t able to see a lawyer until 10 months after his arrest and that his conviction was largely based on a confession that may have been coerced and which he has since retracted.

Chinese officials declined to comment.

“This is just a black box,” Chen, 30, said. “A person is taken, you don’t even know why, whether it is just, that’s our problem, the whole lack of transparency. If we were allowed to go to the trial, were convinced he was guilty, it would be easier to accept, although the death penalty is never acceptable to me.”


Michael Rolufs involved his sister Erica and other Southern California family members, all of whom have helped persuade members of Congress to write the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and, more recently, solicit the media. They have only met Wo once: at Chen and Rolufs’ 2004 wedding in the Austrian Alps. Despite the language barrier, the meeting had a lasting impression, Erica Rolufs said.

In letters to Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and David Vitter (R-La.), the siblings have begged for support and raised serious concerns about what they said was the lack of due process in Wo’s case. Those efforts have led to talks between U.S. officials in Beijing and the Chinese.

“We stressed that there are serious questions regarding the proceedings used to convict Wo and urged a full and fair review of the lower court decision,” said Diane Sovereign, an embassy spokeswoman. “The embassy has further called for any future proceedings to be conducted in a manner that is both transparent and consistent with Chinese law and international human rights norms.”

Chen and Michael Rolufs believe they may be the first family to launch such a public international campaign in a Chinese death penalty case. They admit that the strategy could backfire, further angering Beijing at a time when relations with the West have been strained by condemnation of China’s role in Tibet. But the family members say they don’t know what else to do.


“I am really desperate,” said Chen, an account manager for a multinational company. “I have no other ideas in my head.”

Legal experts say how and whether to wield outside pressure in death penalty cases varies with the circumstances.

“It’s a very complicated calculation,” said Xu Zhiyong, a law professor with the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications and a legal reform advocate. Xu had not heard about Wo’s case, which has received virtually no coverage in China’s state-controlled media.

Generally if it’s a highly political case involving foreigners, outside pressure can have an effect, he said. But if the case involves a Chinese national charged with technical violations of national secrecy, Beijing tends to resist any change in its decision. Chen and her husband said they know of no reason Wo would be connected to Taiwan. While anyone could have a secret life, everything they know of Wo as a devoted scientist, entrepreneur and innovator is inconsistent with the charges, the couple said.


The nonconfidential version of the verdict released to the family March 24 reveals only two of eight “top secret” charges, any of which could result in the death penalty. One relates to charges from a witness that Wo “might” have intentionally passed on information about the health of senior leaders to Taiwan, Chen and Michael Rolufs said.

A second alleges that Wo collected technical information on missiles for the Taiwanese. The other six such charges were not revealed. The verdict also claims Wo received $400,000 from Taiwan.

Chen seriously doubts that Wo had access to confidential information on senior leaders’ health status and notes that the verdict’s use of “might” suggests a lack of certainty. On the more serious charge of obtaining technical information on Chinese missiles, the verdict suggests Wo got information from magazines. But these were all from a publicly accessible library, Chen said.

John Kamm, executive director of the human rights group, the Dui Hua Foundation in San Francisco, said Wo’s case didn’t meet the threshold agreed upon by Chinese legal reformers early last year to warrant execution.


“The Chinese reformed the death penalty so that it should only be used for the most serious and vile cases,” Kamm said. “On the surface, it’s hard to see how this case fits.”

For three years, Chen, Rolufs and his U.S.-based siblings resisted sharing their story with the media for fear it would anger unpredictable Chinese officials. The siblings found it difficult dealing with the crisis delicately through diplomatic channels when their instinct was to garner loud support.

“It felt like we were tiptoeing around China,” Erica Rolufs said. “We didn’t want to wake up the big beast.”

But with the final word being decided by China’s highest court, the family says it has run out of options. The experience has also changed Chen’s view of the country she left at 11.


“I used to see only the really bright sides, the economic development, the opportunities. And I still see them,” she said. “But because of this really personal experience, I now see the dark corners as well.”