Human Rights Lawyers on Defense in China

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Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP

Petitioners react as Chinese policemen attempt to remove them from the vicinity of the courtroom where a hearing in the case against Chinese human rights lawyers Tang Jitian and Liu Wei was taking place in Beijing on April 22, 2010

Two Chinese defense attorneys could have their licenses revoked by judicial authorities, in what human rights advocates say is the latest move by the government against lawyers who handle politically charged cases.

Tang Jitian and Liu Wei have been accused of "disrupting courtroom order and interfering with the regular litigation process" during the April 2009 trial of a Falun Gong practitioner in the city of Luzhou, Sichuan. China banned the Falun Gong movement in 1999, and its followers have faced a severe crackdown over the past decade.

In recent years that repression has extended to lawyers who represent them. The action against Tang and Liu stems from a chaotic trial in Sichuan last year. They say a judge repeatedly blocked their efforts to speak in defense of their client, and unidentified observers videotaped them in court, illegal under Chinese law. The pair eventually decided to submit their arguments in writing, and left the court. They say the Luzhou court's effort to have their licenses revoked in Beijing "was clearly a retaliatory attack," according to a statement translated by Human Rights in China, an NGO based in Hong Kong and New York.

The two lawyers faced a four-hour hearing at the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice Thursday, which ended without a ruling. It could be weeks before their cases are decided. Witnesses say police removed supporters who had gathered outside the Bureau of Justice before the hearing this morning. In an interview, Liu said that some of her legal representatives were also blocked from attending the hearing. "They never presented us with a single piece of evidence until the hearing this morning," she says. "And even then, we were only allowed to glance over the materials briefly, let alone making photocopies of them. Everything they have done remains in the dark. They are afraid of revealing the truth. I have no faith whatsoever in the fairness of the court."

While China has been praised for its efforts to develop a comprehensive legal system over the past 30 years, it still remains firmly under the control of the ruling Communist Party. When lawyers handle cases than run against the Party's interests, they can quickly find themselves in trouble. The past year has been tough for Chinese lawyers who take on cases that touch on sensitive issues of religion, workers' rights and corruption. In June 2009, more than a dozen leading human rights lawyers' licenses expired after their renewal applications — usually considered a formality — were blocked, which the lawyers said was meant to prevent them from doing their jobs. Nearly one year later, at least six of those lawyers, including Tang and Liu saw, are still trying to get their licenses renewed by the Beijing Lawyers Association.

In January lawyer Li Zhuang, who had been representing a mob boss on trial as part of a massive crackdown on organized crime in the southwestern city of Chongqing, was convicted of falsifying evidence and obstructing justice. Observers raised many questions about Li's trial, and suggested that he may have been punished for undermining the popular and high-profile police campaign.

And in March, lawyer Gao Zhisheng surfaced after disappearing more than a year earlier, presumably into the custody of China's state security apparatus. Gao, an aggressive attorney who was once named one of China's top 10 lawyers by the Ministry of Justice, was convicted of subversion in 2006 after he wrote an open letter to China's leaders describing the torture of Falun Gong followers. In an interview with the Associated Press after his reappearance, Gao said that he wanted to give up his legal work and hoped to see his family, who fled to the U.S. in 2009 and were granted political asylum.

Teng Biao, a lawyer who is representing Tang and Liu, says the case against the pair is yet another worrying sign. "This investigation sends a clear message," he says. "Chinese rights defense lawyers are likely to face an increasingly repressive environment in the near future." Human rights and legal experts say the campaign against lawyers could harm China's efforts to develop an independent legal system. "We feel like the Beijing Justice bureau has misused the law in order to harass the two lawyers, and we feel very angry about that," says Patrick Poon, executive secretary of the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group. "This could have a very bad impact on the legal profession in China."

With reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing