Breaking the law: China rounds up its lawyers
“If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers” Dickens wrote, envisaging the ‘bad people’ as the lawyer’s clients no doubt, rather than the government. Yet in China nearly 200 lawyers have been rounded up and hauled in for questioning over the last week in an unprecedented crackdown on the profession. Amnesty considers it could only have been carried out with the agreement of the highest levels of government.
The people rounded up are mostly human rights lawyers often involved in high-profile cases against the state – in terms of working out who the bad people and the good lawyers are, the case seems clear.
The purge has been accompanied by a smear campaign in state media, with lawyers and activists accused of being part of a criminal operation to “undermine social stability”. The People’s Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, has claimed that in order to build a society that uses the law to resolve problems, the police need to “strike hard against illegal lawyers according to the law”.
One firm in particular, the Beijing-based Fengrui Law Firm has been singled out as being at the centre of the “criminal gang”. The law firm had taken on a large number of high profile human rights cases over recent years including defending prominent Uighur academic Ilham Tohti who is currently serving a life prison sentence, and representing the victims of the 2008 tainted milk powder scandal. A thorn in the government’s side then, no doubt.
One of the firm’s lawyers, Wang Yu, was arrested last Thursday marking the beginning of the crackdown. At 3am she sent a worried text to her friends stating that her internet and electricity has been cut off. Then at 4.17 she sent another message saying that people were trying to break in. When her friends tried to contact her later that morning, she was nowhere to be found. It’s the sort of chilling chronology of a crime you could imagine a Barrister reading out to a jury.
Seven of her colleagues and her husband have since been arrested and her teenage son has also been harassed and his passport confiscated. In addition to the roundups the national broadcaster CCTV has aired videos showing the supposed ‘confessions’ of detained lawyers. All of this prompted UN human rights experts to warn yesterday that China’s persecution of lawyers might even have broken the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Some of those arrested are now being held on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power”, which could carry a massive prison sentence of up to 15 years. Another 31 of the lawyers and activists are still missing in detention - and many more of them could face a similar sentence.
Clearly these lawyers need good lawyers. Brave ones too. The question is, are there any left?
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