Human Rights Lawyers 'Disbarred' by Paperwork

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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 26, 2009

BEIJING -- In the five years since it was founded, the Yitong Law Firm has established itself as one of the country's fiercest human rights advocates. It represented Hu Jia, the dissident who spoke out against the Tiananmen Square crackdown and on behalf of HIV/AIDS patients; Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist who exposed forced abortions; and hundreds of others its lawyers felt had been wrongly imprisoned.

Its success rate isn't stellar -- it has won at most 60 percent of its cases. But in a country where rule of law is still a work in progress and calling for democracy is often treated as a crime against the state, Yitong and other human rights firms have spoken out for people who otherwise would have been silenced.

Those days may be over.

Since the beginning of 2009 -- a sensitive year filled with anniversaries of uprisings -- the Chinese government has been forcing human rights law firms such as Yitong to shut down.

Formally, there is no crackdown; no police are swooping in to seize files or send attorneys en masse to labor camps. Instead, Beijing is simply using its administrative procedures for licensing lawyers and law firms, declining to renew the annual registrations, which expired May 31, of those it deems troublemakers. Human rights groups say dozens of China's best defense attorneys have effectively been disbarred.

"It's a collective strike," said Cheung Yiuleung, a leader of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, an advocacy organization based in Hong Kong. "Compared with individual warnings, the annual check of licenses is more effective. . . . It has had a frightening effect on all lawyers on the mainland."

A few prominent lawyers have met with even harsher treatment. One has gone missing: Gao Zhisheng -- who defended religious minorities such as members of Falun Gong and underground Christians, was a nominee for last year's Nobel Peace Prize and whose family fled China and sought asylum in the United States in March -- was taken by security agents from his home in Shaanxi province Feb. 4 and has not been heard from since.

Several lawyers say they have been beaten en route to meetings with clients in human rights cases. Others have been detained, questioned, put under house arrest for days or weeks and told they must be accompanied by police escorts whenever they leave their homes.

In late May, 17 human rights attorneys whose licenses have been suspended signed an open letter saying authorities are engaging in the "full-scale repression of rights" of defense lawyers "to an unprecedented degree."

With high unemployment from factory closings due to the global economic crisis, China's leaders have expressed concern that the sporadic outbreaks of social unrest in recent months might spread, and they have sought to keep those who might stir up dissent, such as human rights lawyers, under tight rein.

Their concerns are compounded by this year's significant dates: the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising that led to the Dalai Lama's flight to India, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the first anniversary of protests over the shoddy construction that caused many deaths in last year's Sichuan province earthquake.

Attorneys whose licenses have not been renewed as of this month include Li Xiongbing, who represented victims of contaminated infant formula against the manufacturer Sanlu; Li Chunfu, who has been working on two cases involving wrongful death while in custody; and Wang Yaiun, who fought for the rights of migrant workers who left the countryside to work in urban factories.


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