(New York) – One year after the Chinese government began a nationwide sweep of more than 300 human rights lawyers, legal assistants, and rights activists on July 9, 2015, 24 still remain in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. The government has blocked lawyers and families from meeting with 18 of these 24 detainees, putting them at high risk of torture and other ill-treatment.
These lawyers and activists are being held for exercising their fundamental rights and should immediately be released, Human Rights Watch said.
“Mass arrests, forced confessions, and secret detentions are Beijing’s answer to rights lawyers who have been working to protect the rights of others in China,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Every day these people languish in detention, Beijing harms ordinary people’s access to justice, dissuades other lawyers from taking sensitive cases, and deepens the stain on China’s reputation.”
The authorities have formally arrested the 24 lawyers and activists, although no credible evidence against them has been made publicly available. Eleven have been charged with the serious crimes of “subversion,” which can carry a life sentence, and five have been charged with “inciting subversion,” which can result in up to 15 years in prison. Three have been charged with “creating disturbances,” three with “gathering crowds to disturb social order,” and two with “organizing others to illegally cross national borders.” Most of the 24 are held in detention centers in Tianjin municipality in northeastern China.
Eighteen of these 24 detainees have been denied access to lawyers of their own choosing or families, according to the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group. Article 37 of the Criminal Procedure Law requires that suspects’ lawyers request permission from the investigators of the case before they can meet with the suspects in cases of “major corruption,” terrorism, and state secret cases. In all of these 18 cases, the police have repeatedly denied their lawyers’ requests to meet them because “there was no such person” in the detention center; the “officers in charge of the case are not there”; or because the detained lawyers have “already appointed their own lawyers” and do not wish to see the lawyers appointed by their families.
The authorities have also harassed and interrogated family members of these lawyers, including children, and prevented them from leaving the country. In one case, Beijing police detained, then on three separate occasions interrogated Bao Mengmeng, the 16-year-old son of detained lawyer Wang Yu and legal advocate Bao Lungjun, who was heading to study in Australia; they also confiscated his passport. When Bao Mengmeng fled to a border town in Burma, unidentified men kidnapped him and brought him back to his relatives’ home in Inner Mongolia, where he has been subjected to house arrest since.
Authorities have also refused to divulge information about 18 of the cases to families and their lawyers, or even provide the names of the main officers responsible for the cases, as is required under Chinese law. Shortly after the wave of detentions began, state media outlets published unsubstantiated allegations about lawyers, activists, and the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, the firm with which some of the 24 were affiliated, 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, 2015, the Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted the alleged confession of the firm’s director, Zhou Shifeng, stating that he had said the firm “had broken the law” and “brought great risks to social stability.”
“One year after these lawyers were detained, there is no evidence whatsoever that these individuals committed a recognizable criminal offense,” Richardson said.
Four lawyers who attempted to seek answers about the cases’ progress from the Tianjin Procuratorate and to submit formal complaints about Tianjin police’s procedural violations were themselves taken into custody on June 6, 2016. Tianjin police seized them and a separate group of family members of detained lawyers protesting in front of the procuracy, and held them for nearly 24 hours before releasing them.
The Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, which employed four of those detained in addition to director Zhou Shifeng, has effectively been shut down over the past year. Most of the 55 lawyers who had worked there left to work for other firms. The Beijing Bureau of Justice has refused to let two partners of the law firm, rights lawyers Liu Xiaoyuan and Zhou Lixin, transfer to other law firms or let them pass the bureau’s annual evaluation of lawyers, without which they cannot practice law as of June 1.
Since the late 1970s, Chinese authorities have enacted thousands of laws and regulations, created a modern court system, established hundreds of law schools to train legal professionals, and publicized through constant propaganda campaigns the concept of the “rule of law.” Yet those authorities also treat lawyers – particularly those like Gao Zhisheng and Chen Guangcheng, who worked on politically sensitive cases – with hostility. They have long faced violence inside and outside courtrooms; intimidation; threats, surveillance, harassment, arbitrary detention, prosecution, and suspension or disbarment from practicing law for pursuing their profession.
Harassment of the legal profession has intensified under President Xi Jinping, who assumed power in March 2013. Some prominent rights lawyers targeted by authorities since that time include: Xu Zhiyong, founder of the New Citizens Movement who was sentenced to four years in prison in 2014; Pu Zhiqiang, who was given a three-year suspended sentence for "inciting ethnic hatred" and "creating disturbances" in December 2015; legal advocate Guo Feixiong, who has been on a hunger strike since May 9, 2016, while serving his six-year term; and Guangzhou lawyer Tang Jingling, who was given a five-year prison term in January 2016 for promoting the ideas of non-violent civil disobedience.
Countries and international bodies, including the European Union, Germany, the United States, Canada, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, have called for the release of the lawyers, as have major bar associations around the world. In March, a dozen countries issued a joint statement at the UN Human Rights Council calling for their release.
“China’s community of human rights lawyers has thrived despite government harassment and detention, assisting countless victims of rights abuses and other injustices,” Richardson said. “The Chinese government should recognize that China’s lawyers and the rule of law are crucial for China’s future, and act now to reverse this clampdown.”