Conviction of Pu Zhiqiang Affirms China’s Resolve to Muzzle Rights Lawyers

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Originally published by New York Times on December 22, 2015

BEIJING — In convicting one of China’s most prominent rights lawyers, the Chinese government has struck a body blow at an independent legal movement that until recently had managed to take root despite numerous obstacles, legal rights advocates say.

Although the lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, 50, on Tuesday received a three-year suspended sentence that theoretically allowed him to go free, the conviction will end his legal career and effectively silence a stalwart member of a group of lawyers who have fought for justice and free speech within the narrow confines of China’s politicized legal system.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power, in 2012, a steady stream of lawyers and rights advocates have been detained, and in several cases have been put on trial and sentenced.

“Over the last 20 years, the great human rights success story has been the growth of lawyers and activists in China who work on everything from pollution to corruption to women’s rights,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch. “This case makes very clear the senior leadership will not tolerate independent organizing, no matter how peaceful.”

There are several seasoned rights lawyers still practicing, including Mo Shaoping, a well-known criminal lawyer who defended Mr. Pu. But over all the profession has taken a “horrific hit,” Ms. Richardson said.

In July, the government rounded up and detained more than 300 lawyers and legal assistants, a maneuver that sent a chill through the legal community, even if most of those detained were later released.

But more than 20 lawyers have remained in secret detention since the July sweep, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group based outside China.

Other lawyers have been detained for longer periods, including a colleague of Mr. Pu’s, the rights lawyer Xia Lin, who has been detained for more than a year.

“It’s never been easy to be a rights lawyer in China, but this is the toughest it’s been in more than two decades,” said Jerome A. Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University. “The mood is extremely grim.”

Given that Mr. Pu faced a maximum of eight years in prison, the three-year suspended sentence was more lenient than had been expected, an outcome most likely influenced by intense international attention to Mr. Pu’s plight.

But by preventing him from practicing law again, the government got him where it hurt the most. And it gave the government what it most wanted — the silencing of a street-smart lawyer who had made freedom of expression the heart of his practice.

In the 19 months since he was first detained, Mr. Pu, who has diabetes, had been denied visits with his family members, and requests by his lawyer to have him released on medical parole had been rejected.

“The ruling makes a mockery of the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ‘rule of the country with law’ and China’s criminal justice system,” Chinese Human Rights Defenders said.

Mr. Pu’s case was emblematic because he was known as a forthright speaker who attracted attention in and out of the courtroom with his blend of scathing critiques and references to classical Chinese literature.

During a three-hour trial last week, uniformed and plainclothes police officers outside the courthouse treated diplomats and journalists roughly, and they detained more than 20 of Mr. Pu’s supporters.

The lengthy pretrial detention seemed to indicate that the government was not of one mind on how to deal with him, Ms. Richardson said. Senior party leaders no doubt knew that there would be broad criticism from the United States and European countries if he were sentenced to a lengthy jail term. Officials in the Public Security Bureau were probably inclined toward a maximum sentence, she said.

“With this sentence, the government does not get criticized for sending him to jail for three to six years, but can send him to jail on a whim,” Ms. Richardson said.

The crackdown against lawyers under President Xi began in 2013, when Xu Zhiyong, the founder of the New Citizens Movement, a group dedicated to promoting legal rights, was arrested on charges of “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.” He was put on trial in January 2014 and sentenced to four years in prison.

In 2014, the government conducted a sweeping campaign in which it detained 955 rights advocates, far more than the 1,160 detained in the previous two years, Chinese Human Rights Defenders said.

In a statement on Tuesday, Rights Defenders warned that even though Mr. Pu had received a suspended sentence, he was not free, because he could be put back into detention if the government deemed he had broken the terms of his sentence.

The group cited the case of Gao Zhisheng, an outspoken rights lawyer who was convicted of subversion in 2006 but was given a suspended sentence. In the years that followed, Mr. Gao was kept under house arrest and, he told The Associated Press, subjected to occasional beatings by the police.

In 2010, shortly before the end of his probation, he disappeared and subsequently spent three years in solitary confinement after a secret trial.

Released last year, Mr. Gao still lives under round-the-clock police surveillance and has numerous health problems, said to be the result of abuse and malnutrition during his years in custody.

“It’s outrageous how Gao has been treated,” said Mr. Cohen, the legal expert. “Pu will be under enormous pressure, because you never know if you will be picked up for whatever reason and put away without due process.”

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