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.
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Chinese lawyers must renew their licenses every year, a regulation that critics say offers officials great scope to put pressure on them. "The system is designed to intimidate," argues Mr. Ho.Skip to next paragraph
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Li Jinsong says that after having gone up against the Shanghai police, a senior Beijing judge, and the Minister of Railways among others, either in court or in forthright public denunciations, "a lot of powerful officials hate me."
"We have been involved in many cases that challenged the authorities," he points out. "They are killing the chicken to warn the monkeys," he says, "trying to close us down to suppress other lawyers."
At the same time, he says, a number of lawyers in his practice have been very vocal in a campaign to hold free elections for the leadership of the Beijing Law Association, the state-controlled local bar.
After the association issued a "stern statement" last September warning that the campaign was "illegal" and "a total repudiation of China's current [system for managing lawyers], judicial system, and even political system," Li asked several of his activist colleagues to resign from Yitong.
"I did it to save the law firm and to save them," he says now, though the gesture does not appear to have been enough to prevent the closure.
If the judicial authorities insist on stage-managed elections to the bar, "it raises very troubling questions about the capacity for independent lawyers to develop in China," worries Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China.
"We have to ask whether it is possible to defend rights if there is no independent bar association," she adds.
China has appeared truculent recently in the face of challenges to its human rights record. Beijing reacted to a critical report by the UN Committee Against Torture last November by angrily denying all the charges, and rejected almost all the recommendations that other countries made during a review of its record earlier this month by the UN Human Rights Council.
"Internationally, China denies there is any problem, and domestically it takes punitive action against those who point out the problems," says Ms. Hom.
A growing list of lawyers in trouble
Yitong's partners are the latest casualties in a growing list of rights lawyers to have suffered at the hands of the Chinese authorities.
Gao Zhisheng, whose own law firm was closed by official fiat in 2005, has not been seen since police took him from his family home three weeks ago. Barefoot lawyer Yuan Xianchen was put on trial last month for "inciting subversion of state power" after having assisted land rights activists. Zheng Enchong, a veteran rights defense lawyer, is under house arrest for signing "Charter 08," a public appeal for democratic reforms.
These cases "show there is a long way to go to the rule of law," which Chinese leaders say is their goal, says Ho. "Lawyers are treated as subservient to the system. Any who are not obedient run the risk of being penalized."