China: New report - dark times for lawyers as repression intensifies

The Chinese government has unleashed an uncompromising series of measures intended to rein in the legal profession and suppress lawyers pursuing human rights cases, Amnesty International said today (30 June) in a new report.

“ Against the Law – Crackdown on China’s Human Rights Lawyers Deepens ” details how state efforts to control lawyers have intensified over the last two years and particularly in recent months.

Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Deputy Director, said:

“The Chinese state is attempting to wield and manipulate the law to crush those it perceives as a threat.

“Human rights lawyers are being targeted as they try to use the law to protect citizens against the excesses of the state.  The government must release all those detained or forcibly disappeared for exercising, or even protecting fundamental rights.

“Human rights lawyers are subject to escalating silencing tactics - from suspension or revoking of licences, to harassment, enforced disappearance or even torture.”

Government fears of a “Jasmine Revolution” inspired by the Arab Spring have led to the detention of scores of government critics, activists and web users since February.  As part of the crackdown, the government is rounding up lawyers associated with issues such as freedom of religion, freedom of expression and land rights. 

Every year members of the legal profession in China have to undergo an ‘Annual Assessment’ which many believe has no basis under Chinese law. Local authorities assess law firms, while individual lawyers are assessed by supposedly independent lawyers associations. Lawyers who dare to take up ‘sensitive’ cases, such as human rights cases, often fail this assessment, which leads to their licence being suspended or revoked.

When annual assessment or threats fail to deter lawyers taking on such cases, lawyers are silenced by the authorities in ways that violate international human rights standards, and even China’s own laws.

The pressure, intimidation and persecution faced by human rights lawyers have kept their numbers down. Out of more than 204,000 lawyers in China, only a brave few hundred risk taking on cases that deal with human rights.

New regulations introduced in 2009-2010 prohibit lawyers from defending certain clients, commenting to the media on their work or challenging court malpractice. They expand the basis for lawyers to be charged with the crime of “inciting subversion” when carrying out legal defence.

The measures have made legal representation more difficult to find for those who need it most.

These include people prosecuted for membership of unofficial religious groups including the Falun Gong spiritual movement, Tibetan and Uighur protestors, victims of forced evictions, or those who challenge the government's response to natural disasters or food safety issues.

People who have suffered violations such as torture and illegal detention by the state are particularly vulnerable to inadequate legal representation. Examples include people facing the death penalty, prosecuted largely on the basis of confessions extracted through torture.

Catherine Baber said:

“If lawyers fear taking on ‘sensitive cases’, especially those involving official misconduct, then the Chinese people cannot rely on the law for redress, and officials have carte blanche to act with impunity.

“This type of repression ultimately can only backfire and undermine public faith in its leaders.

“Amnesty International calls on the government to restore licences to practice to lawyers suspended or disbarred for defending human rights cases, and for the governance of lawyers to be left to genuinely independent lawyers' associations, as advocated by international standards and many people in China.

“Lawyers themselves must be protected - only then will they be able to exercise their full role in the protection of human rights and in the creation of a vibrant and, ultimately, just nation.”

Cases from “Against the Law – Crackdown on China’s Human Rights Lawyers Deepens”

Gao Zhisheng is a prominent human rights lawyer. He has worked on cases involving Falun Gong practitioners and represented individuals facing the death penalty. He has been subject to enforced disappeared since 4 February 2009 except for a brief reappearance in March 2010. He has now been missing for more than a year, leading to serious concerns for his safety. Gao has been held incommunicado and tortured by authorities on repeated occasions, beginning in 2006.

Tang Jitian, a prominent human rights lawyer, has been under illegal house arrest since 5 March 2011, following a three week period of enforced disappearance beginning on 16 February 2011. He is in poor health and he and his family have been warned not talk about his experiences in detention. In early 2009 a group of Beijing lawyers, including Tang Jitian, issued a “letter of accusation” against the Beijing Justice Bureau challenging the legality of annual assessments. In May 2010 he had his licence permanently revoked after defending a Falun Gong practitioner.

On 7 April 2011, Beijing lawyer Ni Yulan and her husband Dong Jiqin were detained by Beijing police, on suspicion of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble". They have since been formally charged with the offence. The couple are reportedly being held at a detention centre in Beijing. Ni Yulan has been arrested and tortured several times since defending people forcibly evicted from their homes in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics. Ni has been permanently disbarred, and her own home demolished by the authorities. While in custody in 2002 she was beaten so badly that she is now wheelchair bound.

Liu Shihui is a Guangzhou-based human rights lawyer and activist. He has taken up cases involving torture and deaths in police custody.  Liu was brutally beaten by a group of unidentified individuals while on his way to attend the 20 February 2011 “Jasmine Revolution” protests in Guangzhou. On 25 February he was picked up by the authorities and subjected to enforced disappearance. He was reportedly escorted back to his home to the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region on 12 June where he remains under illegal house arrest.

Tang Jingling is a Guangdong based lawyer. He has been missing since 22 February 2011, reportedly under residential surveillance for "inciting subversion". His friends believe he is detained at a government run training centre at Panyu city, Guangdong province. A lawyer attempting to check his whereabouts was reportedly beaten. His wife has been told he will be charged. Tang defended workers detained for protesting poor working conditions or unpaid labour. Despite being unable to renew his lawyers licence, he provided legal advice to vulnerable people including migrant workers.

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