By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 6, 2005
SHANGHAI, Nov. 5 -- Judicial authorities in Beijing have shut down the law firm of a prominent civil rights lawyer after he refused to withdraw an open letter urging President Hu Jintao to respect freedom of religion and stop persecuting members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Gao Zhisheng, among the most daring of a generation of self-trained lawyers who have been pushing the Chinese government to obey its own laws, said that the Beijing Bureau of Justice ordered his firm suspended for one year on Friday. The move came just hours after he filed an appeal on behalf of an underground Protestant pastor accused of illegally printing Bibles and other Christian literature.
According to Gao, the government said the firm was being suspended because it had failed to register with the authorities after moving into a new office this year. But he said the action followed his refusal to renounce the open letter to Hu and withdraw from politically sensitive cases as demanded by officials during a series of recent meetings.
Gao said that his firm notified the government when it moved but that officials refused to let the firm register at the new address.
"We're very angry," Gao said by phone Saturday. "By doing this, the Chinese Communist Party is demonstrating it defies all laws, human and divine. They are saying that anyone who believes in law, who criticizes the political system, who exposes crimes against the people, will be targeted."
The closure comes as officials crack down on religion, press freedoms and other civil liberties in China, and confirms that Hu's government is also willing to take action to restrict the growing influence of members of China's budding legal profession. Lawyers such as Gao have been at the forefront of a campaign to inform citizens of their rights under laws that are often ignored by the government and to help them assert those rights in court.
Gao said he planned to fight his firm's suspension at a formal hearing next week.
In an Oct. 18 letter addressed to Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao that he posted on the Internet and distributed widely by e-mail, Gao described several cases he had investigated involving Falun Gong practitioners who have been detained, sent to labor camps and tortured. In one case, he said, a man was hanged from overhead pipes until his legs rotted.
In another case, he said, police tracked down and arrested a practitioner, a college sophomore, after he posted a note on the Internet announcing his resignation from the Communist Youth League.
Under the direction of Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, the Chinese government in July 1999 banned Falun Gong as an "evil cult" and has all but crushed it in an often violent campaign involving the arrests of thousands of people. As practitioners have been released from labor camps in recent years, Gao said, the government has renewed its brutal campaign.
"The persecution of Falun Gong compatriots by some local officials has already reached the point where they are doing whatever they please," Gao wrote in the open letter. "We cannot accept these brazenly inhumane, savage atrocities to occur in the society of mankind in the 21st century."
"This evil catastrophe did not begin with you, but the catastrophe has continued while you two have led the government," he told Hu and Wen.
Gao also urged the government to accept that a revival of religious faith in China was inevitable. In addition to working on behalf of Falun Gong members, Gao is one of several lawyers who have volunteered to defend Cai Zhuohua, the pastor of a house church in Beijing who has been jailed on charges of "illegal business practices" for printing and distributing hundreds of thousands of Bibles. The Bush administration has expressed concern about Cai, who was arrested with several other Christian figures in September 2004.
Gao has been under pressure from the authorities for months. Government officials recently demanded that he withdraw from two politically sensitive cases: a citizen effort to impeach the chief of Taishi village in southern China's Guangdong province and a landmark lawsuit brought by thousands of private investors accusing officials in northern Shaanxi province of seizing oil wells from them worth as much as $1 billion.