(New York) – The Chinese authorities should release the 38 lawyers and activists associated with the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm who have been arbitrarily detained since July 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. Many are held under the criminal procedure known as “designated residential surveillance,” which authorizes incommunicado, and often solitary, confinement for up to six months in secret locations. The six-month deadline falls on January 9, 2016.
“The secret detention of dozens of lawyers makes a mockery of President Xi Jinping’s claims that China is governed by the rule of law,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The failure to release all 38 by the six-month legal deadline would shred any credibility the government has on upholding its own laws.”
On July 9, 2015, police from the northeastern city of Tianjin detained lawyers Wang Yu, who works at Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, and her husband, Bao Longjun. From July through September, authorities apprehended some 300 human rights lawyers and activists across the country in a major crackdown. The activists held have typically been people who participated in activities like staging small protests, complaining to the government about abuses, or helping human rights groups gather information, usually in their local community. Most were threatened for supporting the law firm, which in recent years has employed lawyers undertaking rights defense work, and then released after several hours. However, the Hong Kong-based nongovernmental organization Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group has reported that 38 remain in custody, including Wang and Bao, and that 21 of those are held under “designated residential surveillance.”
Article 73 of the Chinese Criminal Procedure Law allows for the detention of criminal suspects in “designated locations” – often hotels – if they do not have fixed residence or if they are suspected of “endangering state security,” “terrorism,” and “major corruption.” The Chinese government defines “national security” crimes sweepingly, including criticism of the government and the Communist Party; there are also no effective mechanisms to challenge the police’s designation that such cases involve “state security” and thus warrant the measure.
The Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group has reported that 13 of the 38 have been subjected to various other forms of criminal coercive measures. Four are considered to have been forcibly disappeared because the government has provided no information on their whereabouts.
Only one of the 38 has had access to a lawyer, and none had access to their family members. The conditions under which these detainees have been held is conducive to torture and ill-treatment, which is routine in China’s criminal justice system as documented in Human Rights Watch’s May 2015 report.
Shortly after the mass round-up began last year, state media outlets published unsubstantiated allegations about the lawyers, activists, and the Fengrui Law Firm, as well as “confessions” by some detainees, in an apparent effort to discredit the individuals and their work. In October, state media CCTV aired a clip of Wang and Bao criticizing their supporters, who tried unsuccessfully to help Wang and Bao’s son Bao Mengmeng leave for the United States after authorities confiscated the teenager’s passport in relation to his parents’ case.
In the course of the crackdown, the authorities have also prevented about 30 of the released lawyers from traveling abroad; some were told that doing so would pose “threats to national security.” Some family members of detainees have also been harassed, which included being denied travel documents and prevented from traveling abroad.
Human rights lawyers appear to have been singled out for retaliation by the authorities in the past two years, Human Rights Watch said. In March 2014, four prominent human rights lawyers were detained – and some tortured – after trying to meet with clients in Heilongjiang Province. In May 2014, the authorities detained and prosecuted prominent Beijing lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was sentenced in December 2015 to a three-year suspended sentence on charges of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and stirring up troubles.” The conviction means he will no longer be able to practice law. The authorities detained Guangzhou lawyer Tang Jingling and two others and charged them with “inciting subversion” for promoting nonviolent civil disobedience, also in May 2014. Since August 2015, Beijing lawyer Zhang Kai has been detained for providing legal advice to Chinese Christians resisting the government’s drive to demolish crucifixes in Zhejiang Province.
The assault on lawyers reflects the broader trend under President Xi of repressing various elements of civil society across China, Human Rights Watch said. The government has also severely tightened control over freedom of expression, including on the Internet, in the media, and within academia.
“Beijing’s hostility towards those who try to use the legal system as a check on state power has been on full display,” Richardson said. “But efforts to silence such lawyers and activists only amplifies their demands for justice. Beijing should start answering that demand by immediately releasing them.”