The Chinese human rights lawyers seen as enemies of the state

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Originally published by AFP on May 8, 2017

A leading Chinese human rights lawyer went on trial Monday for inciting subversion, in a case which sparked an international outcry after claims he was tortured.

Xie Yang, who had worked on numerous cases considered politically sensitive by China’s ruling Communist Party, was among hundreds of legal staff and activists detained in summer 2015.

The “709 crackdown” — named after the date of the first disappearance on July 9 — was the toughest against civil society for years.

The majority were released on bail, but last year courts found six of them guilty of serious crimes, with sentences ranging from no additional jail time to seven years in prison.

The fate of three leading rights lawyers, including Xie, is unclear. Here are their stories:

Xie Yang 

Police in the southern city of Changsha detained Xie on July 11, 2015, placing him under “residential surveillance” — a form of detention where suspects can be held incommunicado for six months — before formally arresting him.

Xie had worked on numerous politically sensitive cases, such as defending mainland supporters of Hong Kong democracy activists.

He told his lawyers in early 2017 that police had “extensively employed sleep deprivation, long interrogations, beatings, death threats, humiliations” to try to force him to confess to wrongdoing and incriminate colleagues, according to US-based charity Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

But at the start of his trial Monday, a transcript from the Changsha Intermediate People’s Court said Xie denied being tortured.

The court also said Xie admitted having experienced “brainwashing” in Hong Kong and South Korea in order to “overthrow the existing system and develop Western constitutionalism in China”.

Li Heping 

Li, a partner at the Beijing Global Law Firm, has been a vocal critic of the communist party since the late 1990s.

A devout Christian and supporter of religious freedom, Li has defended members of the banned Falungong movement as well as environmentalists and victims of forced eviction.

Li went missing on July 10, 2015 and the following January was charged with “subversion of state power”.

His wife Wang Qiaoling said his treatment has left him suffering psychological damage.

A court in Tianjin on April 28 sentenced Xie to a three-year suspended sentence following a secret trial.

Li’s current status is unclear. Since his sentencing, his wife told AFP she has not heard from him.

Wang Quanzhang

Wang, a lawyer with the now defunct Beijing Fengrui law firm, specialised in cases involving farmers’ land rights, labour camps and criminal rights.

The state-run Xinhua news agency accused his firm of running a “criminal syndicate” and serving as a platform for masterminding illegal activities to incite “social disorder.”

Fengrui had frequently defended victims of sexual abuse, members of banned religious groups and dissident scholars, among others.

Wang was charged in January 2016 with “inciting subversion of state power” and “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”. He is being held in a detention centre in Tianjin and has been denied access to a lawyer, according to rights groups.

It is not known when he will stand trial.

What will their fate be?

Courts are tightly controlled by the communist party, with guilty verdicts in 99.9 percent of criminal cases.

Out of the 19 known trials of human rights activists and lawyers in 2016, 16 were convicted of “political” offences such as subversion and inciting subversion.

In an annual report in March, Chief Justice Zhou Qiang cited the harsh punishments imposed on rights defenders as the legal system’s top accomplishment last year.

The cases were meant to “further discredit the human rights lawyers”, said Patrick Poon, China researcher for Amnesty International.

But the crackdown did not seem to have scared people away from the work. “There are still quite a lot of people … doing advocacy.”

One of them was attorney Jiang Tianyong, who disappeared last November while trying to visit the wife of a detained lawyer. Police say he is under residential surveillance. His relatives say they have not heard from him.

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