The difficulty of supporting activists such as Chen Guangchen in China

Being a qualified lawyer gives lawyers who support activists such as Chen Guangchen a measure of protection, but they are still vulnerable to all kinds of official pressure. 

By , Staff writer

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    Human rights activist Jiang Tianyong speaks to journalists outside a hospital after his failed attempt to see blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng who is believed to be seeking treatment in Beijing, China, May 2.
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When Jiang Tianyong, a well-known human rights lawyer, went to visit his friend Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist, soon after he had emerged from the US embassy, he got no farther than the hospital gates.

Police dragged him away, took him to a police station, beat him about the head so badly that he lost hearing in one ear, and finally released him in the early morning.

Mr. Jiang wasn't even working.

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Lawyer Jiang has suffered worse than that in official retribution for representing clients who have drawn the government's ire, including members of the banned Falun Gong sect, Tibetans, and Mr. Chen himself.

Last year, as authorities cracked down on lawyers here in the wake of the Arab Spring, Jiang "disappeared" for two months. He was "taken to some secret places, beaten, criticized, and brainwashed" by Beijing police officers, he recalls.

Landlords have bowed to official pressure and evicted him five times from different homes, Jiang says. He has been subjected to several periods of house arrest; his wife and children have been harassed; guards have sealed his front door shut; and once, in a particularly petty act, they locked his wife's bicycle, he says.

And he lost his license to practice law in 2009.

"Human rights lawyers face a perilous life in China," says John Kamm, a human rights activist who heads the San Francisco-based group Duihua, which works on behalf of political prisoners in China. "They face many barriers."

When lawyers are beaten, "disappeared," or jailed, their plight generally attracts wide attention. Far more often, though, says Wang Songlian, a researcher with the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Defenders, it is "unqualified" legal advocates – such as Chen – who are abused for taking cases the government regards as sensitive. "There are probably dozens of them in jail, most of whom are not well known," she says.

Qualified lawyer's status gives them a measure of protection, but they are vulnerable to all kinds of official pressure. Crucially, they are obliged to renew their licenses with their local bar association each year – a hurdle Jiang failed to surmount in 2009.

This means most lawyers pay attention when the Justice Ministry or the bar association issues "guidance" or "opinions" that they do not take sensitive cases, or that they handle them in a certain way, says Eva Pils, a legal expert at the Centre for Rights and Justice at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

If they don't, she says, the authorities often warn the head of a recalcitrant lawyer's firm that his business risks trouble. "At the point when it is felt that neither the Ministry of Justice nor the bar association nor a lawyer's firm can control him, the security apparatus gets involved," Professor Pils says.

Human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang says that "99 percent of lawyers will be affected by this sort of pressure." He adds, "There is no organization in China supporting lawyers doing pro bono work, so very few will take it on because of all the trouble it gets you in."

The pressure on lawyers has been mounting for several years, says Pils, amid "fears that the [ruling Communist] Party might lose control over lawyers, who are not oriented to upholding party rule, but toward working for clients."

In 2008, the judicial authorities proclaimed the "Three Supremes" doctrine, according to which judges were told to uphold the cause of the Communist Party, the interests of the people, and the Constitution and the law, in that order. Earlier this year, the Justice Ministry published a regulation requiring newly licensed lawyers to swear an oath of loyalty to the party.

Mr. Pu dismisses this new rule. "Lawyers serve society and the country, not a party," he says. "They should abide by the law and respect facts, not be government employees."

Despite the difficulties he and his colleagues face, Pu is optimistic. "Though the authorities would like to control the situation, society is getting more open, and I think it will continue to do so," he says.

Twenty years ago, Mr. Kamm says, "there was no such thing as a [human] rights defender in China. Now we have a very different situation. Nothing encourages anyone to take on a human rights case, but the fact that there are people doing it is tremendously heartening."

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