(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately release human rights lawyers who have been arbitrarily held since a nationwide crackdown began in July 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should restore all wrongfully revoked lawyers’ licenses to practice.
Beginning on July 9, 2015, known as “709,” Chinese police rounded up and interrogated about 300 human rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists across the country. While most were released within weeks, at least one has been forcibly disappeared and four others have received long prison sentences. Authorities continue to harass, surveil, and deny licenses to other rights lawyers.
“President Xi Jinping’s claims that China is ruled by law will ring hollow so long as lawyers are detained at the whim of authorities,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Each day lawyers are unjustly jailed darkens the stain on Beijing’s already poor rights record.”
Beijing lawyer Wang Quanzhang has been detained awaiting trial on charges of “subversion of state power.” The authorities have denied Wang access to family or legal counsel, and he has not been heard from since his apprehension three years ago. There are reports that he has been tortured in custody.
Other lawyers and activists prosecuted since the 709 crackdown include lawyer Zhou Shifeng and democracy activist Hu Shigen. In August 2016, a Tianjin court convicted the pair of “subversion” and sentenced them to seven years and seven-and-a-half years in prison respectively. In November 2017, a Hunan court sentenced lawyer Jiang Tianyong to two years in prison for inciting subversion. Jiang’s wife said that he told his father during a prison visit in June 2018 that he was forced to take an unidentified medication and his memory had deteriorated considerably. In December 2017, a Tianjin court convicted human rights activist Wu Gan of subversion and sentenced him to eight years in prison.
In the past year, Chinese authorities have also detained at least two lawyers who represented other lawyers implicated in the 709 crackdown. In October 2017, Shenyang authorities detained Li Yuhan and later charged her with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Li, who suffers from coronary artery disease and other health issues, has been denied bail. Li represented Wang Yu, a human rights lawyer who was detained during the 709 crackdown. In January 2018, authorities detained Yu Wensheng, alleging he had “incited subversion of state power.” Before his detention, the Beijing Bureau of Justice revoked Yu’s license and rejected his application to establish a law firm. Yu had represented Wang Quanzhang.
Chinese authorities have over the past year also revoked or suspended the licenses of a number of lawyers who were detained during the 709 crackdown but later released. Several other lawyers have been unable to find work due to police pressure on employers. According to Ministry of Justice regulations, lawyers’ licenses are cancelled if they have not been employed by a law firm for over six months.
Since their release in August 2016, lawyer Wang Yu and her husband, legal activist Bao Longjun, have not been able to find employment after authorities repeatedly warned law firms not to hire the couple.In March 2018, lawyer Zhang Kai alleged that the authorities had forced his employer to fire him. In April, lawyer Xie Yanyi and Li Chunfu found that their licenses were marked “cancelled” on the website of the Beijing Bureau of Justice. The Beijing Lawyers’ Associate later informed Xie that it was due to his past “regulation-breaking behavior.” In May, the Beijing Bureau of Justice revoked the license of lawyer Li Heping, citing Li’s criminal conviction. The previous year, in April 2017, a court in Tianjin found Li guilty of subversion and imposed a three-year suspended sentence.
Since August 2017, authorities have also revoked or suspended the licenses to practice of a number of other human rights lawyers, some of whom have represented those affected by the 709 crackdown. In June 2018, the Hunan Bureau of Justice revoked the licenses of Wen Donghai and Yang Jinzhu, alleging that their “disorderly court conduct” has caused “adverse effects on society.” Wen and Yang represented Wang Yu and Zhou Shifeng respectively.
In addition, Chinese authorities have continued to harass and intimidate human rights lawyers and their families, including frequently ordering them not to speak to the media, restricting their movement, and installing surveillance cameras around their residences. In April, Li Wenzu, wife of detained lawyer Wang Quanzhang, embarked on a 100-kilometer march to advocate for her husband’s release. Police intercepted her and briefly put her under house arrest along with her 5-year-old son. In May, after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her visit to China, Xu Yan, wife of detained lawyer Yu Wensheng, was followed by police on the street and prevented from taking taxis.
Meanwhile, on July 1, during a national lawyers’ conference, the government-controlled All-China Lawyers Association added language to its charter calling on lawyers to “firmly safeguard the authority of the Communist Party which has comrade Xi Jinping as its core.” The minister of justice, Fu Zhenghua, also said at the same occasion that lawyers’ associations must “unwaveringly uphold the Party’s comprehensive leadership over lawyers’ work.”
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers states that everyone should have “effective access to legal services provided by an independent legal profession.” Governments should ensure that lawyers are able to perform their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment, or improper interference and should not suffer or be threatened with prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for acting according to their recognized professional duties.
“The Chinese government sees the role of lawyers as advancing the interests of the Communist Party, not upholding their clients’ rights,” Richardson said. “The licenses of mistreated lawyers should be restored immediately.”