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(New York) – The Chinese authorities should immediately drop politically motivated cases and release Xia Lin, Zhou Shifeng, and other detained human rights lawyers, Human Rights Watch said today.

Police guard outside the second intermediate people's court of Beijing, December 22, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

Both Xia Lin, who has defended activists and victims of rights abuses in a number of well-known cases, and Zhou Shifeng, director of the embattled Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, face prosecutions that appear linked to their human rights legal work, Human Rights Watch said. Xia’s case is scheduled for trial on June 17, 2016. On June 12, police recommended Zhou’s case for prosecution. These actions come nearly one year after the government engaged in a mass round-up of human rights lawyers.

“The Chinese government’s hostility toward human rights lawyers has not eased since the mass arrest of legal professionals last July,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “This heavy-handed campaign against lawyers can only further diminish public—and global—confidence in China’s justice system.”

The authorities have charged Xia Lin with extortion stemming from money he had allegedly borrowed from private individuals, though none of those individuals had filed police reports or brought civil claims prior to Xia’s detention. The case against Xia appears to be retaliation for his defense of Guo Yushan, the head of a leading Beijing think tank, Transition Institute, in 2014. Guo was detained in October 2014, and Xia was taken into custody a month later. Xia was initially also detained for gambling, though that charge was eventually dropped. His case has been delayed twice as the procuratorate has sent it back to the police due to insufficient evidence.

Among those that Xia has defended include Deng Yujiao, a hotel worker who killed a government official in self-defense against attempted rape, and Tan Zuoren, a Sichuan activist who was imprisoned for investigating the causes of school collapse during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.

Xia’s case has been rife with procedural irregularities, Human Rights Watch said. Police took Xia into custody without presenting a warrant to his family. China’s Criminal Procedure Law requires that a suspect’s family be informed within 24 hours of an individual’s formal detention, but Xia’s family was not informed of his whereabouts or the charges against him for five days. From November 2014 to February 2015, detention center officials repeatedly denied the requests of Xia’s lawyer to meet him, contrary to Chinese law allowing such access, claiming they were “checking his lawyer’s documents.”

Zhou Shifeng has been charged with subversion, a serious political crime that can result in a life sentence. Zhou’s prosecution stems from the mass detentions and interrogations of lawyers and activists in connection with the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, which has hired lawyers undertaking human rights defense work. Beginning on July 9, 2015, authorities took into custody more than 300 people across the country. Most were released after a day or two of questioning, though 24 are still in detention, according to the Hong Kong-based group Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group. Eleven of the 24 are lawyers and legal assistants.

Shortly after the wave of detentions began, state media outlets published unsubstantiated allegations about lawyers, activists, and the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, calling them “a major criminal gang” that “aim[s] to create disturbances and disturb order” in the name of “defending [human] rights.” On July 18, Xinhua quoted the alleged confession of Zhou, stating that he had said the firm “had broken the law” and “brought great risks to social stability.”

During their more than 11 months of detention, these lawyers and legal assistants have been held incommunicado, during which they have had no access to lawyers of their choice or their family members. Human Rights Watch is seriously concerned about their well-being, as their detention and politicized prosecutions leave them at risk of torture or ill-treatment. In late May, there were reports from activists in Tianjin, where most of the lawyers are being held, that Zhao Wei, detained legal assistant to Li Heping, who is also in custody, had been subjected to unspecified “sexual assault.” Human Rights Watch has been unable to verify this.

The Chinese government has dramatically narrowed space for free expression and civil society since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, Human Rights Watch said. Authorities have targeted a wide range of civil society actors, such as liberal scholars and opinion leaders on social media, while asserting Communist Party supremacy and demanding increasing loyalty to the party.

Human rights lawyers appear to be a particular focus of the government’s assault on civil society, Human Rights Watch said. In December 2015, Beijing lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was convicted for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “disturbing public order” and given a three-year suspended sentence; in January 2016, Guangzhou lawyer Tang Jingling received five years in prison for promoting non-violent civil disobedience; Beijing lawyer Zhang Kai was detained incommunicado between August 2015 and March 2016 for providing legal advice to Christians who resisted the government’s campaign to remove crosses from churches in Zhejiang province.

“The Chinese government is going after lawyers, the very people who have provided a legal safety valve for rising social discontent,” Richardson said. “The government should recognize that embracing their role, rather than imprisoning them, is in the country’s best interests.”

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