One Year After Crackdown, China's Lawyers Face 'Complete Powerlessness'

china-lawyer-wangyu-07202015.jpg Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Yu poses during an interview in Hong Kong, March 20, 2014.

One year after Beijing police raided the homes of prominent human rights attorneys with the Fengrui law firm, China's legal profession is still reeling from the shock of what was to be a coordinated and nationwide campaign to silence them.

When top human rights lawyer Wang Yu got back to her family's Beijing home in the early hours of July 10, 2015, she found the power cut off and the Wi-Fi down, according to one of the last social media posts she made.

"I heard someone trying to force the door … but it was dark and I couldn’t see, but I could hear people muttering from time to time, but not clearly," Wang wrote. "Now, calls to my husband and son’s cell phones are ringing unanswered."

Within hours, Wang's own phone would be unavailable, as would those of her family and colleagues at Fengrui.

The Fengrui raids of July 9 and 10, 2015 led to the detention of top rights lawyer Wang Yu, her husband Bao Longjun, her boss Zhou Shifeng and widened to include the detention and interrogation of some 319 lawyers, paralegals, law firm employees and rights activists.

Wang, Bao, Zhou and 12 others are now under formal arrest on subversion-related charges, many of them in police-run detention centers in the northern city of Tianjin, where they have been denied access to their own lawyers.

'Subversion of state power'

Wang is being charged with the more serious charge of "subversion of state power," while Bao's arrest is for the lesser charge of "incitement to subvert state power."

Incitement to subvert state power carries a maximum jail term of five years in less serious cases, and a minimum jail term of five years in cases deemed more serious, or where the suspect is regarded as a "ringleader."

"Subversion of state power" carries a minimum jail term of 10 years in cases where the person is judged to have played a leading role. Jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo is currently serving a 13-year sentence for "incitement to subvert state power."

Six rights activists including Yin Xu'an, Wang Fang and Li Yanjun are being held on public order charges like "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," and "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order," according to the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG).

At least 14 people are out on bail, meaning they likely face continuing police restrictions and one is under house arrest, including 24-year-old legal assistant Zhao Wei, who was released conditionally on Thursday.

The crackdown hasn't been limited to those directly involved in defending the rights of some the most vulnerable people in China, however.

Lawyers regarded as potential "troublemakers," and the families and children of those detained have been hit with travel bans, including Bao Zhuoxuan, the 16-year-old son of Wang Yu and Bao Longjun, who also goes by the family nickname Mengmeng.

Two activists who tried to help Mengmeng flee China through Myanmar after his parents' arrest were handed over to Chinese police by the authorities in Shan State, and now facing people smuggling charges.

Wang's lawyer Wen Donghai said the families of those detained have campaigned all year to have lawyers visit their clients, to no avail.

Little hope of justice

Wen, who has launched a bid to sue the authorities for the continued failure to allow access to lawyers, says he holds out little hope of any justice.

"Actually I think it would be better if the lawsuit isn't accepted by the Supreme People's Procuratorate, because if they do take it, it'll only give the families false hope," Wen told RFA in a recent interview.

"But we will carry on trying to sue them, even if they don't," he said. "This is the only option, when all others have failed."

He said continued public concern for the lawyers could also put pressure on the authorities.

Fellow rights lawyer Ma Lianshun said the authorities have refused to recognize attorneys hired by families, insisting instead that those detained are "represented" by lawyers hand-picked by police.

"The reason we have lawyers is to act as checks and balances to official power vested in the prosecution, the court, and the police investigating the case," Ma said.

"But where these cases are concerned, they have smashed the whole framework of the criminal procedural code," he said. "And this is happening right across the country."

"This is a really serious problem, and it has put those who are being persecuted in a position of complete powerlessness," Ma said.

"[We fear] the authorities will try and sentence them in secret," he said.

Politically motivated

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Beijing to drop all charges against the detained lawyers, saying they are politically motivated.

"The Chinese government’s hostility toward human rights lawyers has not eased since the mass arrest of legal professionals last July," HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a recent statement on the group's website.

"This heavy-handed campaign against lawyers can only further diminish public—and global—confidence in China’s justice system," she said.

Shortly after the crackdown began, media outlets controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party wrote articles calling the lawyers "a major criminal gang" that had deliberately tried to whip up public disturbances in the name of human rights work.

They cited a "confession" from Zhou Shifeng, who reportedly admitting breaking the law and "risking social stability."

HRW said there are serious concerns over the well-being of those in continued detention.

"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," the group said.

"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."

The relatives and defense lawyers of the detained human rights lawyers have staged vocal protests, sometimes getting themselves briefly detained in the process, outside detention centers and government offices in Beijing and Tianjin.

They have written an open letter to China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), calling for an independent inquiry into breaches of legal process in the handling of their cases.

Some have even brought a lawsuit against the party-controlled All China Lawyers Association for failing to intervene to help the lawyers.

So far, no response has been forthcoming from any official channel.

"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," she said.

Rights groups say the administration of President Xi Jinping has launched a concerted attack on free expression and civil society since he came to power.

Draconian new laws have targeted rights activists, liberal scholars and social media, while Xi has warned that the Communist Party's official line must be paramount.

Meanwhile, London-based Amnesty International also called for the lawyers' immediate release.

"The detained lawyers must be released and this systemic assault against individuals defending the rights of Chinese people must end,” East Asia research director Roseann Rife said in a statement ahead of the anniversary of the crackdown, which falls on Saturday.

"President Xi Jinping has the gall to claim the Chinese government upholds the rule of law even when lawyers face life in jail for trying to do just that," Rife said.

Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan and Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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