Rights Group Slams Legal System as China Jails Blind Activist

Family planning rights activist Chen Guangcheng. Photo courtesy of Chen Guangcheng.

HONG KONG—Tighter regulations, procedural obstacles, increasing harassment of lawyers, and recent conviction of blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng show that China is intensifying its crackdown on the legal profession, a U.S.-based rights group says.

From a legal point of view, even a day spent in jail would be an injustice for Chen Guangcheng.

Pointing to an overall "chilling effect" on China's nascent legal profession, the New York-based Human Rights in China (HRIC) listed in its August Trends Bulletin several high-profile cases of physical violence, harassment, and prosecutions targeting lawyers in recent months.

Last week, authorities in the eastern province of Shandong handed a four-year jail term to Chen Guangcheng, a social activist who blew the whistle on official abuses under China's one-child policy. Lawyers and Chen's relatives called the trial an illegal and retaliatory move by local officials.

Chen Guangcheng, who is blind, was sentenced by the Yinan County People's Court on Aug. 24 to four years and three months' imprisonment for "willfully damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic," an official statement said.

Wife surprised by sentence

While Chen's sentence was reported by the official Xinhua news agency, his wife told RFA's Mandarin service she found out about the sentence only after reporters contacted her for comment.

"This sentence has come as a surprise," Yuan Weijing said. "From a legal point of view, even a day spent in jail would be an injustice for Chen Guangcheng."

"This is quite simply an attack on him," she said.

Chen's groundbreaking work as a self-trained legal advocate on behalf of women suffering forced abortions and other abuses at the hands of Yinan county family planning officials has earned him praise among socially aware netizens in China.

But it has also drawn him years of house arrest, surveillance, beatings, and harassment by local officials and the unidentified men they hire as heavies.

Xinhua attributed the whole of its report on Chen to a document it received from the court, even down to an assertion that the trial proceedings had been fair.

Legal team harassed

"The court document says Chen's rights were completely protected, and his two lawyers expressed their views in full," the English version of Xinhua's report said.

But lawyer Li Jinsong, one of Chen's legal team, said local officials had obstructed them at every turn, not even delivering a final copy of the judgment to his representatives.

Another lawyer in the team, Beijing-based Teng Biao, said the trial was illegal.

"This sets a very bad precedent," he told RFA's Cantonese service. "Civil rights activists in China are in a terrible plight, because the government itself uses illegal methods against them."

And Chen's wife Yuan told RFA's Cantonese service: "The Communist Party propaganda makes it all sound so civilized, as if legal procedures are being observed and justice is being done, as if they care about the law."

"But you only have to look at what has happened to Chen in the countryside, and to lawyer Gao Zhisheng in the capital, to see what sort of rule of law China really has."

Legal profession under fire

HRIC's report said China's legal system was being undermined by continual pressures on lawyers, especially those representing clients in sensitive cases involving allegations of official wrongdoing. This was particularly the case when lawyers represent large groups in land and property disputes, it said.

Local authorities, while exhorted by Beijing to work towards a "harmonious society," have rolled out a series of fresh regulations in recent months aimed at severely limiting the scope of lawyers in investigating cases and gathering evidence.

The report quoted one Beijing-based law professor as saying that around 70 percent of defendants in criminal proceedings never had access to a lawyer at all.

Frequent beatings, harassment, and prosecutions had made the profession unattractive to fresh talent, it said.

"Although nearly 80 percent of the 500 lawyers detained, accused, or punished for any reason between 1997 and 2002 were eventually found innocent of any wrongdoing, the aggravation caused by these accusations and the general fear of harassment has led many individuals away from pursuing careers in criminal or civil law," the report said.

"The result is that some defendants or litigants have been unable to find a lawyer willing to take their case because of the sensitive nature of the case, leaving them to either not pursue their grievance or to represent themselves."

Earlier this week, an activist and a lawyer who had travelled, or planned to travel, to Yinan county to support Chen were themselves detained at an unknown location.

One man spoke to RFA before his phone was cut off, while the wife of the other man said national security police had said her husband was safe, while declining to give further details.

China's controversial population control policy is aimed at restricting urban couples to having one child and rural parents to two, and while local officials are not supposed to coerce families into compliance, independent research by writers, activists, and scholars suggests a grimmer picture.

Chen's work in Linyi city and neighboring Yinan county prompted an unprecedented admission from China's national family planning agency that Linyi authorities had indeed carried out some extreme measures. The agency promised disciplinary action, but no punishments have been made public.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Lee Kin-kwan and in Mandarin by Ding Xiao. RFA Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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