CSM piece on lawyers as HRDs in China gives a fuller picture

May 22, 2012

With all the attention now focussed on Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist, this article of 21 May by Peter Ford, staff writer at the CSM, is most welcome. It describes the extremely difficult circumstances under which lawyers and legal activists have to work, explaining the difference between the two categories. It starts with describing the case of  Jiang Tianyong, who went to visit his friend Chen Guangcheng, soon after he had emerged from the US embassy.

Last year, as authorities cracked down on lawyers in the wake of the Arab Spring, Jiang “disappeared” for two months. He was “taken to some secret places, beaten, criticized, and brainwashed” by police officers, he recalls. Landlords have bowed to official pressure and evicted him five times from different homes, Jiang says. He has been subjected to several periods of house arrest; his wife and children have been harassed; guards have sealed his front door shut; and once, in a particularly petty act, they locked his wife’s bicycle, he says. And he lost his license to practice law in 2009.

“Human rights lawyers face a perilous life in China,” says John Kamm, a human rights activist who heads Duihua, which works on behalf of political prisoners in China. “They face many barriers.”

When lawyers are beaten, “disappeared,” or jailed, their plight generally attracts wide attention. Far more often, though, says Wang Songlian, a researcher with the Hong Kong based China Human Rights Defenders, it is “unqualified” legal advocates – such as Chen – who are abused for taking cases the government regards as sensitive. “There are probably dozens of them in jail, most of whom are not well known,” she says.

Qualified lawyer’s status gives them a measure of protection, but they are vulnerable to all kinds of official pressure. Crucially, they are obliged to renew their licenses with their local bar association each year – a hurdle Jiang failed to surmount in 2009. This means most lawyers pay attention when the Justice Ministry or the bar association issues “guidance” or “opinions” that they do not take sensitive cases, or that they handle them in a certain way, says Eva Pils, a legal expert at the Centre for Rights and Justice at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

If they don’t, she says, the authorities often warn the head of a recalcitrant lawyer’s firm that his business risks trouble. “At the point when it is felt that neither the Ministry of Justice nor the bar association nor a lawyer’s firm can control him, the security apparatus gets involved,” Professor Pils says.

Human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang says that “99 percent of lawyers will be affected by this sort of pressure.” He adds, “There is no organization in China supporting lawyers doing pro bono work, so very few will take it on because of all the trouble it gets you in.” The pressure on lawyers has been mounting for several years, says Pils, amid “fears that the [ruling Communist] Party might lose control over lawyers, who are not oriented to upholding party rule, but toward working for clients.”

In 2008, the judicial authorities proclaimed the “Three Supremes” doctrine, according to which judges were told to uphold the cause of the Communist Party, the interests of the people, and the Constitution and the law, in that order. Earlier this year, the Justice Ministry published a regulation requiring newly licensed lawyers to swear an oath of loyalty to the party. Despite the difficulties he and his colleagues face, Pu is optimistic. “Though the authorities would like to control the situation, society is getting more open, and I think it will continue to do so,” he says.

Twenty years ago, Mr. Kamm says, “there was no such thing as a [human] rights defender in China. Now we have a very different situation. Nothing encourages anyone to take on a human rights case, but the fact that there are people doing it is tremendously heartening.”

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