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(New York) - Chinese lawyers who take cases seen by the government as politically sensitive or potentially embarrassing face severe abuses ranging from harassment to disbarment and physical assaults, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

In April 2008, for example, a group of lawyers who had publicly offered to defend Tibetan protesters were warned by the Chinese Ministry of Justice not to get involved or they would face disciplinary sanctions and jeopardize the renewal of their professional licenses for the year. Ministry officials contacted individual lawyers and heads of law firms who had made the offer and warned them that the cases of Tibetan protesters were "sensitive cases." The Ministry of Justice has the power to suspend the lawyers’ licenses if they do not comply, and such threats are increasingly common for lawyers trying to take such "sensitive" cases.

"Lawyers who challenge official abuses in China systematically suffer retaliation," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "But if people can't take their grievances to the courts, they will take them to the streets."

The 142-page report, "Walking on Thin Ice: Control, Intimidation and Harassment of Lawyers in China," details consistent patterns of abuses against legal practitioners. These include intimidation, harassment, suspension of professional licenses, disbarment, physical assaults, and even arrest and prosecution when lawyers take politically sensitive cases, seek redress for abuses of power and wrongdoings by party or government agents, or challenge local power-holders.

Human Rights Watch also said that restrictions on lawyers risk exacerbating widespread social unrest as citizens are denied meaningful legal avenues to solve disputes. China has witnessed an explosion of social unrest in recent years, fueled by rising economic disparities and endemic abuses by unaccountable local officials. Issues such as illegal land seizures, forced evictions, relocations from dam areas, environmental pollution, unpaid social entitlements and administrative malfeasance have become burning social issues.

The Chinese government, which has committed itself to the rule of law while still insisting on the primacy of Communist Party rule, has repeatedly stressed the need to develop the legal profession and has extolled the role that lawyers play in dispensing justice and preserving social stability. But Chinese officials also insist that lawyers must respect political considerations set by the party. In addition, courts routinely refuse to file cases of governmental abuses, while local authorities regularly threaten lawyers with disciplinary actions, non-renewal of professional licenses, or even prosecution and arrest. Authorities at the local level can easily manipulate these requirements to cover wrongdoings and abuses of power.

"It is inherently unjust for government officials to have the power to decide which cases lawyers can pursue," said Richardson. "It negates the rule of law and makes justice fundamentally unattainable."

The report details various instances in which lawyers have faced serious harassment for representing controversial cases, including those of victims of torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement agencies, citizens alleging abuses of power by local officials, and religious and political dissidents, among others. Examples include:

  • Li Heping, a prominent Beijing lawyer was kidnapped, detained, and beaten by a group of unidentified men on September 29, 2007. His captors released him after six hours, having threatened him with further violence if he did not leave Beijing;
  • Zhang Jiankang, a lawyer who had represented farmers in a high-profile land dispute in Nanhai, Guangdong Province, was denied re-registration in March 2007;
  • Zhang Jianzhong, a prominent lawyer and advocate who served as the head of the committee on lawyers' rights of the Beijing Lawyers Association, was arrested in May 2002 and sentenced to two years in prison in December of the same year under article 307 for allegedly having assisted with fabrication of evidence.

The new Human Rights Watch report draws on extensive interviews with Chinese lawyers, activists and legal experts, and argues that the incidence of violence, detention or prosecutions of lawyers is far more widespread than the number of publicly reported cases indicates.

Even in ordinary criminal cases, defense lawyers struggle to exercise the limited rights they enjoy under the law, the report shows. Lawyers’ access to clients in detention, court documentation, evidence and witnesses is sharply limited, and is subject to the discretionary cooperation of judicial institutions. Lawyers are by and large unable to seek redress for such violations, even when their clients have been tortured or ill-treated in detention to extract forced confessions.

Human Rights Watch called on the Chinese government to ensure access to justice for victims of abuses of power by upholding existing laws and prosecuting officials who obstruct the course of justice.

"Abuses of lawyers compound human rights violations, undermine citizens' rights, and exacerbate social unrest," said Richardson. "Without due process and genuine defense rights, law remains little more than an instrument of state repression."

Quotes from the report:

Chinese officials in their own words:

“The rule of law is important for the promotion, realization and safeguarding of a harmonious society. This principle should be rigorously implemented in all political, administrative and judicial sectors to ensure the powerful be checked and accountable for their misdeeds.”
—President Hu Jintao, June 26, 2005

“There are people who use the tools of Western legal theory, and put on the hat of ‘ruling the country according to law’ to negate the leadership of the party.”
—Wang Shengjun, secretary of the Political and Legal Committee of the Party, March 2005

“Lawyers’ licenses must be registered yearly. Unregistered licenses are not valid.”
—Article 12 of the Ministry of Justice’s Methods for the Management of Lawyers’ Professional Licenses

Chinese lawyers in their own words:

“For lawyers, retaliation by the local authorities is a big danger. We are all walking on thin ice.”
—P. D., a Beijing lawyer, November 2007

“The first warning is that someone at the Judicial Bureau will give you a simple phone call to invite you to ‘have a chat.’”
—W. Z., a Shanghai lawyer, September 2007

“They want all my family to move out of Beijing, to sell my apartment, my car and leave Beijing. In their words, I am to ‘get the hell out of Beijing.’”
—Li Heping, a Beijing lawyer, after an incident in which he was kidnapped, detained, and beaten by a group of unidentified men, September 2007

“You can beat me up, but please do not beat me up in court; please do not beat me up as I carry out my professional duties.”
—Open letter by lawyer Wang Lin after he was assaulted by a court official in Tianjin, April 2007

“When you go to a small town and the police are following you all the time, what kind of testimonies can you get?”
—L. W., a lawyer from Beijing, November 2007

“For the past few years, the working environment of the legal profession has become more dangerous day by day.”
—Text of an open letter by 53 lawyers, December 2006

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