(New York) – Chinese authorities should immediately release and drop charges against 18 human rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists who have been held for nine months in violation of their basic rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Under Chinese law, the procuratorate – the prosecutor’s office – has until April 8-9, 2016, to decide whether to again extend their pretrial detentions.
The detainees are being held on dubious charges of subversion or incitement of subversion. In addition, parts of the interrogations of at least three of them were broadcast on state television. And most have been denied access to the lawyers of their choice, leaving them especially vulnerable to ill-treatment in detention.
“China’s trumped-up cases against 18 rights advocates make President Xi Jinping’s claims of embracing the rule of law ring hollow,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The detainees have been denied key legal protections by being accused of bogus offenses, not having access to family and counsel, and being held in secret.”
The authorities have repeatedly violated the detainees’ due process rights.
In recent weeks, authorities have informed lawyers appointed by many detainees’ families that the detainees wish to dismiss them and use government-appointed lawyers instead. The Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG) said that this includes the detained lawyers Wang Yu, Zhou Shifeng, Li Shuyun, Xie Yanyi, and Li Heping and his assistants, Zhao Wei and Gao Yue; a legal assistant, Liu Sixin; and activists Hu Shigen and Gou Hongguo. The authorities also refused to let the family-appointed lawyers directly confirm this with their clients, the lawyers group said.
Li Yuhan, the defense lawyer for Wang Yu – a prominent human rights lawyer who is charged with “subversion of state power” – said that on March 1 Tianjin city police told her that Wang had “confessed” to the charges against her, agreed to dismiss lawyers appointed by her family, and had chosen another lawyer approved by the authorities. The authorities refused Li’s request to meet with her client to confirm this.
CHRLCG also reported that Zhou Shifeng, director of the Beijing Fengrui law firm which was at the center of the crackdown on lawyers, recently said he would not accept lawyers hired by the authorities.
On March 5, some of the detainees’ families and lawyers along with other activists issued an open letter calling on the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber stamp parliament, to set up a committee to inquire into the crackdown. Soon after that, police threatened the mother of Zhao Wei, one of the detainees, telling her not to contact lawyers again or campaign for her release.
Between July 9 and September 2015, Chinese police rounded up about 300 rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists across the country. While many were released within a day or two after questioning, at least 18 have been detained under a form of pretrial detention called “designated residential surveillance” that allows police to hold suspects incommunicado in secret locations for up to six months in certain kinds of cases, including subversion. At the end of those six months suspects must either be formally arrested or released.
In early January, just days before the end of the six-month period, authorities formally charged 11 of the 18 with subversion, four with inciting subversion, one with destroying evidence, and two with “picking quarrels and stirring up troubles.” Charges of subversion or incitement to subversion significantly limit suspects’ ability to access lawyers and can carry lengthy sentences. Police and the procuratorate then had two months to investigate and decide whether to release them or move ahead with prosecutions.
Only three of the requests from detainees’ lawyers and families about the status of particular cases received information regarding an extension of detention later in March. Representatives of three detained lawyers – Wang Quanzhang, Li Heping, and Xie Yang – were told that their detention had been extended for another month. No information has been provided in the other 15 cases.
Under articles 154 and 156 of the Criminal Procedure Law, the two-month detention period can be extended twice with the procuratorate’s approval – one month for the first application and two months for the second application. The next point at which their detention could be extended is in early April.
Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the extensive procedural violations in these cases, which violate China’s international legal obligations to respect the rights to a fair trial, to be free of arbitrary detention, to receive family visits, and to obtain legal counsel of one’s choice. The Chinese government should revise its criminal procedures to ensure suspects’ access to a lawyer during all interrogations by authorities, and to shorten to 48 hours the amount of time an individual can be held before being released or brought before a judge. Until such changes are made, all suspects remain at risk of ill-treatment or detention.
“China’s criminal procedure laws should protect against rights violations, not make it easier for abusive authorities to mistreat suspects,” Richardson said. “If the Chinese justice system is ever to be taken seriously, fundamental changes are needed.”