China Tries to Muzzle Rights Lawyers Defending 'Politically Sensitive' Cases

Attendees at an enforced 'symposium' receive no reply to queries about 'disappeared' colleagues, while being warned not to speak to foreign media about their cases.

More than 70 lawyers with a history of defending vulnerable groups attend a 'symposium' in Beijing, Aug. 29, 2017.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has ordered dozens of lawyers to endorse a "declaration" accepting further controls on the legal profession following a nationwide operation launched in July 2015 targeting rights lawyers and their associates for detention, criminal sentences, house arrest, and travel bans.

More than 70 lawyers with a history of defending vulnerable groups in cases considered politically sensitive by the government were told to attend a "symposium" in Beijing from Aug. 28-31, attendees told RFA.

The meeting was addressed by China's minister for justice Zhang Jun, who told the assembled lawyers that a "Western-style" separation of powers and judicial independence isn't suited to China.

During the minister's address, Beijing rights lawyer Li Fangping asked Zhang for information about disappeared rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, who has been incommunicado since his detention in the July 2015.

The minister replied: "Let's talk about that later."

Among those told to attend were the former attorney of late Nobel peace laureate and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo, as well as lawyers who represented the families of children who died or were made sick by the 2008 tainted baby milk scandal, and those who defended fellow lawyers in the July 2015 crackdown.

"All lawyers need is to be faithful to the law ... but we were told at the symposium that they will be stepping up controls on lawyers," attendee Chang Boyang said.

"A lot of it was focusing on things that lawyers say in public outside court."

Chang said the meeting ended with a "declaration" that the attendees were told to read out, pledging not to speak to the foreign media in politically sensitive cases, as well as accepting other controls.

Lawyer Huang Hanzhong said the "declaration" was unconstitutional, however.

"It is misleading to the public to limit the freedom of speech of one party to a case, when we have so many televised confessions on the other hand, with the authorities using the media to smear some parties to a case," Huang said.

Shanghai-based lawyer Zhao Didi agreed.

"This is about freedom of speech; everyone has their own opinion, and it shouldn't matter whether they are expressing them in court or outside it," Zhao said.

"These sorts of limitations are against the law of the land."

'They don't even need the law'

Wen Donghai, who represented Fengrui rights lawyer Wang Yu after her detention on the night of July 9, 2015, said the authorities appear to feel that the crackdown hasn't entirely succeeded in cowing China's legal profession.

But he said the entire "symposium" appeared to endorse the abuse of due legal process when handling political cases.

"They don't even need the law to detain dissidents," Wen said. "If they think it's a crime, then they'll detain the person."

"They can also 'interpret' the law however they want."

Wen said many previous cases involving prisoners of conscience have shown that there is scant likelihood that the authorities will obey their own laws.

"There have already been so many cases involving rights activists who have been treated in an illegal manner," he said.

More than 300 lawyers, law firm staff, rights activists and relatives were detained, questioned, or placed under surveillance or other restrictions in a nationwide police operation targeting the legal profession launched in July 2015.

The Communist Party under President Xi Jinping is increasingly using allegations of involvement by overseas organizations to target peaceful dissidents and rights activists.

Xi has repeatedly warned against "hostile foreign forces" attempting to overthrow Communist Party rule by infiltrating China with "western" religious practices and ideas like democracy, constitutional government, and human rights.

Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.