China’s Missing Rights Lawyers

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Originally published by New York Times on January 13, 2016

Over the last six months, the Chinese authorities have detained or summoned for questioning more than 200 legal practitioners who had worked on civil rights cases.

While some have been released, several prominent lawyers now face criminal charges, including subverting state power, which can carry a sentence of up to life in prison.

Here are profiles of some of the most notable civil rights advocates detained in the nationwide campaign.

Zhou Shifeng

Zhou Shifeng, a criminal lawyer trained at Peking University’s prestigious law school, presided over a law firm that employed some of Beijing’s most ardent civil rights advocates.

In 2008, Mr. Zhou represented parents of children who became sick after consuming tainted milk powder from one of the nation’s biggest producers.

Mr. Zhou, the director of the Fengrui Law Firm, most recently represented Zhang Miao, a news assistant for the German newspaper Die Zeit, who was detained in Beijing for nine months and freed on July 9. Ms. Zhang had helped the newspaper cover the democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014.

Mr. Zhou was detained on July 10. State news outlets have accused him of being at the “operational core” of a “criminal syndicate” and of recruiting protesters to put public pressure on the courts.

Last week, he was formally arrested on charges of subverting state power, according to Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer with knowledge of the case.

Wang Yu

A prison sentence on assault charges that she denied transformed Wang Yu, a former commercial lawyer, into a rights activist. She works at Zhou Shifeng’s law firm.

Last year, she represented Li Tingting, a women’s rights advocate detained in March over a planned protest against sexual harassment on public transportation.

She also defended Ilham Tohti, a moderate scholar of China’s Turkic Uighur ethnic minority who is now serving a life sentence on charges that include advocating separatism.

Ms. Wang, 44, was arrested in the early hours of July 9 at her home. Her husband and 16-year-old son had been detained earlier at Beijing’s international airport. The son is said to have been captured as he tried to flee China through Myanmar in October.

Her lawyer said on Wednesday that Ms. Wang had been arrested on charges of political subversion. Her husband, Bao Longjun, a trainee lawyer who worked with Ms. Wang, was charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” a slightly lighter charge also used to imprison dissidents.

Li Heping

Li Heping, a trained intellectual property lawyer, took on an early landmark case of persecution of dissent online in China in 2003. His client, Yang Zili, then served eight years in prison on subversion charges.

Mr. Li, now in his 40s, also represented practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that has been banned, and Christians who rejected the state-sanctioned religious organizations.

He represented the dissident Chen Guangcheng, who embarrassed the Chinese government by escaping house arrest in 2012 and seeking refuge at the United States Embassy in Beijing.

His lawyer, Ma Lianshun, said on Tuesday that he had not been informed of any charges and that he did not know where Mr. Li was held.

Wang Quanzhang

Wang Quanzhang’s defense of civil rights advocates has led to several stints in detention as well as physical confrontations with court bailiffs and the police.

In 2013, Mr. Wang, 39, represented Wang Dengchao, a former police officer who tried to organize a pro-democracy rally in Shenzhen.

In June, several court bailiffs beat Mr. Wang after he was expelled from a court hearing during closing arguments, according to one account by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group.

Mr. Wang was detained on July 10. He was formally arrested last week on charges of subverting state power, according to Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer with knowledge of the case.

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