China cracks down on human rights lawyers
A Beijing firm known for defending famous activists is told to close. Attorneys elsewhere have been detained or tried.
One of China's most prominent human rights law firms is fighting a government closure order, as authorities here step up a crackdown on troublesome lawyers.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
At a hearing next week the Yitong law firm, which has been at the center of several high-profile political cases, will appeal a ruling by a local Justice Department in Beijing suspending the practice for six months, according to managing partner Li Jinsong.
"That would kill the firm," says Mr. Li. "They are distorting facts ... to get revenge" for the way the firm's lawyers have criticized or defied government agencies, he charges.
The closure order, which activists here say is unlikely to be overturned at the hearing, is part of "a wider effort to stifle and intimidate lawyers who aspire to defend human rights and the public interest," says Albert Ho, chairman of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group in Hong Kong. "This is really a very serious matter."
The Yitong partnership is well known for having represented some of China's most famous dissidents, including Hu Jia, an AIDS activist who received the European Parliament's top human rights award last year and is now serving a three-year sentence for inciting subversion.
The firm also has a reputation for taking up legal cudgels on behalf of ordinary citizens who claim to have been mistreated by the authorities.
Yitong has been a leading light in the "rights defense movement," through which "increasing numbers of citizens are using the legal system as a means of redress for violations of their rights," states a 2007 report by Human Rights in China, a New York-based watchdog group.
The result, according to the report, is that "lawyers are increasingly being attacked for defending them."
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Haidian, the Beijing district where the firm is headquartered, says she could not comment on the Yitong case because it had not yet been finally decided.
A system 'designed to intimidate'
Mr. Li, however, says the closure order accuses his firm of illegally employing a lawyer who does not have a professional license to practice law. He denies the charge, saying the employee dealt only with administrative, not legal matters.
The allegation, however, underscores a major hindrance to the practice of law in China.
The lawyer in question, Li Subin, a former deputy director of the firm, was denied the chance to renew his professional license by the provincial authorities in Henan, whose judicial bureau he had successfully sued for overcharging.
The Henan authorities' refusal to process Li Subin's paperwork when he moved to Beijing made it impossible for him to practice law.