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.
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.
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.
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."