Thwarted by China’s courts, ‘diehard’ lawyers ‘fight to the death’ for justice

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Originally published by The Globe and Mail on April 27, 2017

Little more than an hour after the opening of a retrial against Wilson Wang, two women burst out of the courthouse at the Wuhu City Jinghu District People’s Court.

“The court beats people! Come and see, everyone!” they shouted in front of a small crowd that gathered. Ambulances arrived and, soon, attendants emerged from the courthouse carrying Mr. Wang’s wife, Jean Zou. She is a Chinese-born Canadian whose fight for her husband’s release has attracted Ottawa’s attention and cast new light on abuses in the Chinese justice system.

“I passed out in the trial,” she said from the back of an ambulance. “My husband fell down and I was worried.” Meanwhile, back inside, Mr. Wang had vanished. He fainted, his family said, as he tried to protest his treatment in court. Then he was spirited away and the courtroom was empty, except for his legal team. They waited an hour. “Nothing was really happening,” said Gan Weidong, one of the lawyers. “So we decided to leave.”

It was a moment of baffling legal drama this week in a little-known Chinese city. But it has opened a remarkable window into the prosecution of justice in a country that has claimed great progress in advancing the rule of law, but whose legal system regularly twists suspects and their defenders into Kafkaesque contortions as it maintains a 99.92-per-cent conviction rate.

Once an executive at a cigarette factory, Mr. Wang was taken away by Chinese anti-corruption investigators in April, 2015. For 54 days, he was interrogated and, he told his lawyers, tortured inside a powerful system called shuanggui that is designed to extract confessions of graft, although critics say it subjects suspects to torture.

The Globe and Mail has extensively documented Mr. Wang’s case.

Though a court found Mr. Wang guilty and sentenced him to six years in jail, a higher court later ordered a retrial, saying “the facts of the former judgment were found to be unclear, and the evidence was found to be insufficient.”

For Mr. Wang and his family, it was an important victory after months of legal tussling, and the retrial this week offered a chance to once again argue the case.

But from the outset, the family has encountered obstacles. The court assigned Mr. Wang a new judge for his retrial, but that judge operates under the same judicial panel and local authorities who make most important courtroom decisions. Judges in China have little independent authority.

The retrial was scheduled for a date inconvenient for Mr. Wang’s lawyers, who had trials in other cities on adjoining days – and booked into a courtroom with just 24 seats. More than 100 people attended his first trial, but this time court officials said only three seats were available for family and demanded proof of registration, which is not required by Chinese law. In the end, only two were allowed in. It was not clear who occupied the other seats. A Globe and Mail journalist and a Canadian diplomat were also told they could not enter the court grounds.

Meanwhile, as Mr. Wang’s family fought to get in, dozens of students from a local technical college eased past security and into a much larger courtroom, where they watched a traffic-accident trial, whose proceedings ensured that the space could not be used for anything else. The students were asked to attend only the day before, they said.

The court also violated at least two requirements for prior notification of trial date and indictment, said Mr. Gan, the lawyer. Mr. Wang found out about his own trial the day before, when he was informed by his legal team. Mr. Gan protested, demanding a delay and asking the court to address a series of other procedural issues. It fell on deaf ears.

“Opening the trial was breaking the law. But the court insisted that it continue,” he said.

Shortly after he was brought into the courtroom, Mr. Wang ignored orders that he stay quiet and spoke: “The law gives you power, but you must obey the rules,” he told the judge, according to his sister, Wang Qin, who was in the court.

Then, she said, he suddenly toppled over. He “fainted in the courtroom, because he was too angry and worried,” she said.

With enormous odds stacked against them in the formal judicial process, some Chinese lawyers have turned to other means to defend their clients, leveraging the power of social media and the occasional willingness of political authorities to bend to public pressure. A half-decade ago, a group of lawyers began calling themselves “diehards,” adopting a Chinese colloquialism that roughly means “to fight to the death.”

They have become celebrities in China, sometimes employing methods that would get them booted out of Western courtrooms for contempt.

“In the courthouse, they stick to the law to the extreme. Whenever there is a little procedural problem they will just fight to the death,” said Sida Liu, a scholar at the University of Toronto and fellow of the American Bar Association who has conducted extensive research on China’s legal system.

And in court, they will employ tactics tantamount to “street theatre,” he said. “They use this very radical behaviour, sometimes fainting or some other kind of incidents to, you can say, disturb the trial or to delay the trial.”

The idea is to generate enough publicity to grab political attention and, they hope, persuade authorities to “instruct the court to change their decision,” Prof. Liu said.

Often, such actions amount to a farcical response to a farcical system.

“Most lawyers aren’t asking for special treatment, just basic due-process rights to ensure a fair trial and rule of law,” said Frances Eve, a researcher for Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD). “Many resort to public advocacy to try and challenge the politicized court system in China.”

Such tactics have been controversial, and diehard lawyers have been denounced in state media as “commandos” and “activists” who, in the words of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, “have wild intentions to challenge and change the law … causing excessive intervention of public opinion in the judicial process.”

China has responded with crushing force. A two-year campaign to arrest, detain and intimidate lawyers has aimed to silence those challenging the system, accusing them of, among other things, hiring protesters to make their case. In March, China’s top judge Zhou Qiang released a list of major judicial accomplishments in 2016. Leading it was “severe punishment of the crime of endangering state security” by human-rights defenders.

Some lawyers have been convicted of subverting state power, an extremely serious crime in China.

“I actually agree with the argument that to some extent these lawyers brought it upon themselves, because they were using very radical means to challenge the state,” Prof. Liu said. “But I’m very sympathetic to why they did it. It’s precisely because they couldn’t find justice in the courtroom.”

When The Globe asked Mr. Gan about his approach, he denied being a “diehard.” The term, and the methods it evokes, have become dangerous in a country that has actively targeted lawyers.

“It would definitely be malicious for anyone to say that diehard lawyers arrange such performance art,” Mr. Gan said. “We firmly believe in the law.”

In fact, “performance art” is one of the four principal elements of how diehard lawyers work, lawyer Yang Xuelin wrote in an article describing the tactics of the group. It’s risky, he acknowledged, since it can provoke negative public opinion. But “this kind of mischievous behaviour” can also pressure authorities who “have broken the law, and force them to correct mistakes as soon as possible.”

Jean Zou said no forethought had gone into her husband fainting, or her near-simultaneous collapse. Her 85-year-old father had suddenly died just days before the trial, and the grief and end-of-life rituals had left her overwhelmed and exhausted, she said. Mr. Wang learned about the death the day before the trial, leaving him sleepless with grief, she said.

Fainting “happens all the time in China,” she added, particularly among those in mourning. The two were “not planning it.”

Before entering court, Ms. Zou had energetically marched around the sidewalk and engaged in heated conversation with authorities.

She and her lawyers had sought a delay in the trial, in hopes more time would allow them to press the court to give detailed consideration to the case, rather than rushing a judgment. After the courtroom swooning, the trial was delayed, although no new date has yet been set.

The Globe called trial judge Zhang Zhen to ask for comment, but he said he was busy and hung up.

For those who came to the trial, meanwhile, the experience left a poisonous aftertaste.

“In China, so many innocent people suffer,” said Ryan Wang, a long-time friend of Ms. Zou and Wilson Wang, who like the others was barred from attending a trial that was, officially, an open one.

“I do not believe that the law in China is fair,” he said, adding that what he observed left him angry. “But there is no way out, no way to change things.”

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