(New York) – The June 18, 2015 beating of lawyer Wang Quanzhang by court police in Shandong province underscores the perilous environment in China for lawyers who vigorously represent clients or issues unpopular with authorities, Human Rights Watch said today.
In the past year, at least 10 other human rights lawyers have also been assaulted while representing clients in what authorities consider sensitive political cases. There is no publicly available evidence to suggest that lawyers in these cases posed threats that warranted the use of force by court police officers.
“Some of these lawyers were attacked in response to asking court authorities to follow their own rules,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Identifying flaws in court procedures and asking for redress is a fundamental part of lawyers’ work, and shouldn’t result in beatings.”
On June 18, lawyers Wang Quanzhang, Chen Zhiyong, and Shi Fulong were representing practitioners of Falungong, a religion banned in China, in Dongchangfu District Court in Liaocheng, Shandong Province. Wang criticized the judge’s violations of court procedures, which included repeatedly prohibiting defense lawyers from speaking and from questioning the suspects.
Near the end of the court debate, the presiding judge told court police to remove Wang from the courtroom for “disrupting court order.” About a dozen police officers then grabbed Wang by his neck and shoulders and dragged him out of the courtroom, while some hit his head and face with their fists in full view of the court and the officials present. Wang was dragged to another room and ordered to kneel down. When he refused, the officers beat him. The ordeal lasted for 10 minutes.
After the beating, the head of the court, the presiding judge, and other court officials went to the room where he had been beaten and berated him for “disrespecting the judge … and not following the judge’s orders,” according to Wang. There is no evidence, however, to suggest that Wang or the other lawyers in any way presented a threat to security in the courtroom, or that the judges in any way reprimanded or ordered an investigation into the brutal behavior of the police.
The three lawyers were detained for hours and not released until the early hours of June 19.
Wang’s beating is the latest in a series of incidents across the country in which lawyers have been reported to be physically attacked while carrying out their duties:
- On May 17, lawyer Xie Yang was assaulted by a group of unidentified men wielding knives and metal rods while providing legal advice to clients involved in a contractual dispute in a market in Nanning City, Guangxi Province. The assailants broke Xie’s leg, while seven of his clients were also slightly injured. Although Xie and his clients repeatedly called the police for help during the beating, police did not come and no one has been arrested in the case. Instead, the police accused Xie as a suspect for “gathering crowds to engage in a brawl.” Xie suspects that the beating may be related to his representation of a family of a man whose killing by the police sparked nationwide outrage;
- On April 22, during a trial of Falungong practitioners in Liaoning Province, lawyers Dong Qianyong and Wang Yu were dragged out of the courtroom by court police for protesting against procedural violations and the court police’s rough handling of one of their clients;
- On April 21, lawyers Liu Jinbin, Zhang Lei, Wang Fu, and Yang Jianxiong were preparing to defend clients suspected of organized crime. The lawyers were assaulted by a group of unidentified men and women immediately outside of the court house in Hengyang Intermediate Court in Hunan Province. For five minutes, the lawyers were beaten, scratched, and had their clothes torn. The lawyers suspected that their advocacy on behalf on their clients, who alleged that police tortured them to confess, may have prompted the attack. The court authorities said that court police present quickly intervened to protect the lawyers. Although seven of the assailants were given seven days of administrative detention, none face criminal sanctions;
- On February 9, lawyers Wen Donghai and Shi Fulong, who were representing a group of villagers forced to move for a reservoir project in Hunan Province, alleged that a number of court police officers “pushed and shoved” them in the courtroom. The lawyers believe that they were treated this way because they had criticized court officials for not allowing the villagers to attend the case; and
- On July 3, 2014, citizen representative Bao Lungjun, who represents a victim of a forced eviction in Beijing, was wrestled to the ground by several court police officers, beaten and detained for seven hours. Before being beaten, Bao had complained about court security officers who conducted a body search on him in violation of relevant regulations.
Human Rights Watch has frequently reported on the lack of accountability for police implicated in attacks on lawyers. More than a year after four lawyers – Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong, Wang Cheng, and Zhang Junjie – were tortured for trying to assist members of the Falungong movement who were held in unlawful detention facilities known as “black jails” in Jiansanjiang, Heilongjiang Province, none of the police officers have been held accountable. Some of the lawyers continue to suffer from injuries and illnesses as a result of the assaults.
Physical assaults are just one of many dangers lawyers – especially those who defend unpopular issues or clients – face in advocating for their clients’ fair trial rights, as previously detailed by Human Rights Watch. They are also vulnerable to detention and imprisonment: human rights lawyer Tang Jingling is currently detained for “inciting subversion,” while human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang is detained for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Both are expected to be tried in the coming months.
Article 306 of the Criminal Law also allows lawyers to be prosecuted for “enticing” suspects to “falsify evidence” or “change their testimony contrary to facts,” which gives the authorities another powerful tool to intimidate lawyers. Lawyers can also be denied a license to practice, especially during the annual evaluation of their performance by judicial authorities. In August 2014, for example, Cheng Hai was suspended from practice in Beijing and Wang Quanping had his license cancelled in Guangdong Province, both because of their work representing clients in what are perceived as sensitive cases, such as those imprisoned for involvement in the New Citizens Movement, a group that promotes civic rights and participation.
“Lawyers in China should go into court fearing that the worst possible outcome is losing their case – not violent assault by officers of the court,” Richardson said. “That such beatings take place, including in courtrooms, and without accountability, is a powerful indictment of the Chinese government’s hollow claim to the ‘rule of law.’”