New Wave of Persecution Against Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Must Sound the AlarmComments Off on New Wave of Persecution Against Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Must Sound the Alarm
CHRD calls for urgent international attention to recent developments in persecuting and clamping down on human rights lawyers in China, with criminal trials against three Chinese human rights lawyers – Li Yuhan, Qin Yongpei, and Hao Jingsong — and revocation of the licenses of two veteran lawyers – Liang Xiaojun, and Lin Qilei.
CHRD urges the Chinese government to end its escalating persecution of lawyers and demonstrate its willingness to fulfill its commitment to implement China’s own law and international human rights norms. The international community must speak out and put pressure on the government of China to abide by its human rights obligations and international human rights law.
These Chinese lawyers have persevered in using Chinese laws to defend clients in cases touching on the rights of persecuted religious or ethnic minorities, Hong Kong democracy protesters, democracy activists, and targeted fellow lawyers, despite the pressure on Chinese lawyers in recent years.
Meanwhile, the government-run All-Chinese Lawyers Association (ACLA) has promulgated new rules, the All-China Lawyers Association On Prohibiting the Hyping of Cases in Violation of Rules, which will further aid the campaign to control lawyers and eradicate the space for human rights lawyers to do their job.
These developments are alarming. As the inaugural “Summit for Democracy” is set to take place on December 9-10, countries committed to democracy and human rights face a grave challenge in China, with its glaring record of human rights violations, leading role in assisting anti-democratic countries around the world, and its hosting in mere weeks of the Winter Olympics, which Beijing will inevitably use to legitimize its authoritarian system.
Li Yuhan: Languishing with Poor Health in Detention for Defending Other Lawyers
Human rights lawyer Li Yuhan (李昱函), who had defended fellow lawyer Wang Yu in the 2015 crackdown, has languished with poor health in pre-trial detention since October 2017. Her detention dragged on largely because she had refused to confess to the crimes she is charged for: “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “fraud.” Li has reportedly been suffering from atrial fibrillation arrhythmia, coronary heart disease, hyperthyroidism, diffuse gastritis, and other life-threatening health problems.
On October 20, 2021, Li Yuhan went on trial at the Heping District People’s Court in Liaoning. Diplomats from six countries tried to attend, but they were denied entry on the pretext that there were “no available seats.” Her lawyers Xie Yang and Wang Yu were also not allowed in the courtroom. The trial ended without a verdict. The judge is to pick another date to announce the sentence.
Hao Jinsong: Lawyer Outspoken about Hong Kong Protests Put on Trial
Hao Jinsong (郝劲松) is a high-profile legal advocate who has used the law for over 15 years to defend Chinese consumer rights, for which, he had even received praise in the state press.
Some of Hao’s career highlights include suing Beijing Railways for not issuing receipts to its consumers; drafting an open letter to the Ministry of Railways urging an end to railway ticket price hikes during the Chinese New Year festival, when many migrant workers and others travel home for the holidays.
Hao has been detained since December 17, 2019. He was originally taken away by police for 15-days of administrative detention for allegedly infringing upon the “Counter-Terrorism Law” and for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after he refused to delete some social media posts, most likely related to the 2019 pro-democracy Hong Kong protests.
Hao was put on trial in a closed-door hearing on November 18, 2021 at the Shanxi Province Dingrang County People’s Court on charges of “slandering,” “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” and “fraud.” The trial ended without a verdict. The court is to pick another date to announce the sentencing.
Qin Yongpei: Lawyer Critical of Official Corruption and Outspoken on Hong Kong Detained for More than Two Years without a Trial
Qin Yongpei (覃永沛), a disbarred human rights lawyer from Guangxi, was detained in October 2019 in apparent retaliation for criticizing on social media the corruption of high-level Chinese officials. In the months prior to his detention, Qin had commented online about “politically sensitive” topics, including the pro-democracy protests happening in Hong Kong.
Qin has languished in pre-trial detention for over two years, and he was long barred from seeing a lawyer and only saw his family after 643 days in detention. On October 13, 2021, Qin Yongpei finally had a pre-trial court hearing at the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region Number 2 Detention Center, although it is still uncertain when his trial may take place.
According to the indictment, the authorities accused Qin of “using Weibo and Twitter to degrade and spread rumors about state leaders with malicious intent, attack the regime and socialist system, and incite the mass who are not familiar with the real situation to initiate doubts about the regime and socialist system since 2014.”
Qin, who was disbarred in May 2018 for taking on “politically sensitive” cases, was among several disbarred lawyers who set up in September 2018 what they satirically named the “Chinese Post-Lawyers Club” (中国律师后俱乐部). The lawyers, though prohibited from representing clients at trial or visiting them in detention, vowed to keep providing legal consultation to victims of rights abuses and to push for rule-of-law reforms. By November 2018, Chinese authorities had targeted the group and declared it an “illegal organization,” and police officers raided one location where the club had met in January 2019.
Lin Qilei and Liang Xiaojun: Veteran Human Rights Lawyers Facing Disbarment
Lawyer Lin Qilei was informed on October 31, 2021 by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice that his law license had been revoked. Lin had represented on of the “Hong Kong 12” last year – activists who were intercepted at sea by China’s Coast Guard while trying to escape from and who were subsequently detained in mainland China. Lin had also previously defended human rights activists, like Guo Feixiong, democracy activists like Qin Yongmin, and Tibetans who were allegedly unfairly targeted.
(Watch a documentary about Lin Qilei made by David Missal).
On November 26, 2021, human rights lawyer Liang Xiaojun (梁小军) posted to Twitter a document he received from the Beijing Justice Department informing him that a decision had been made to revoke his law license. The rationale given was that Liang Xiaojun had used domestic and foreign social media platforms and had openly supported Falun Gong and had insulted and smeared the General Principles of the Chinese Constitution.
However, as Liang Xiaojun noted in an interview, he had been supporting Falun Gong practitioners for well over ten years – so why would there be a sudden change now? Liang Xiaojun had represented one of the “Hong Kong 12”. His friend and former lawyer Wu Shaoping speculated that the real reason for Liang’s disbarment could be for Liang’s defense of his client Xu Zhiyong. To a large extent, the Xu Zhiyong case, as based on the indictment, is about whether Chinese citizens have the space to discuss issues related to constitutionalism, civil rights, new forms of citizenship, and how to practically get engaged to change society.
It is worth noting that two other mainland lawyers who represented some of the “Hong Kong 12”, Lu Siwei and Ren Quanniu, were also punished by authorities by having their licenses revoked in early 2021.
It is thus quite plausible that Liang Xiaojun is being punished for merely taking on the Xu Zhiyong case and the “Hong Kong 12” case.
New Rules on Prohibiting the “Hyping Up” of Cases and Restricting Free Expression
These cases of criminal prosecution and administrative punishment of lawyers, as mentioned above, are playing out in the context of alarming new rules issued by the All-China Lawyers Association On Prohibiting the Hyping of Cases in Violation of Rules, which was promulgated on October 15, 2021.
For years, human rights lawyers have fought to use China’s own laws to hold the government to account and seek justice to victims of human rights abuses. But justice can often be thwarted, given that the police, prosecution, and court all formally coordinate and take orders on handling cases from the legal affairs commissions under the auspices of the Communist Party. Thus, when a client’s procedural rights are not respected in accordance with the law, a lawyer has no choice but to either accept that a case will end in a miscarriage of justice or find some other means, such as press interviews or social media, with the hope to put some pressure on the authorities to abide by the law.
However, the ACLA rules could restrict many of the means lawyers use to draw attention to governmental misconduct.
Article 4 of the new rules states that lawyers and law firms must not “hype cases in violation of the rule” using methods such as “Creating pressure from public opinion…. through methods such as joint signatures, publishing open letters, organizing online gatherings, or declaring support”; “Conducting distorted or misleading publicity or commentary through platforms such as the media and personal media…”; “Insulting or defaming case-handling personnel, opposing parties, and their agents ad litem, or misrepresenting or denigrating the image of case-handling personnel”, “Inciting or instigating parties or other persons to make improper comments on the case through media such as the internet…”.
According to the new rule, when a lawyer faces a blatant unlawful action by the police or judicial authorities, such as not being allowed to visit a client, being barred from reading case files, or being told of dismissal by the client without being able to confirm with the client, etc.., as happens in many cases, the lawyer would be at risk if he or she discussed the situation on social media or criticized the officials engaged in such unlawful actions.
The new rule also could bar a lawyer, upon learning that a client had been tortured, from telling the family of the client about the torture allegations. This is far from a hypothetical scenario, as in the case of the torture of Chang Weiping, lawyers are often the first people to learn about the allegation of torture and inform the loved ones of their clients. The new rules will put the lawyer at further risk in such a situation if the family members made public the situation or engaged in advocacy on their loved one’s behalf on social media. The authorities could blame the lawyer under the clause of “(i)nciting or instigating parties or other persons to make improper comments on the case through media such as the internet.”
This concern about the new rules’ deterrence impact on lawyers who disclose allegation of torture is further underscored by Article 5, which states:
“In cases that are publicly tried, the lawyer taking on the case must not disclose or disseminate important information or evidence obtained through practice activities such as meeting clients, reading the case file, or investigation and collection of evidence, that might impact the lawful handling of the case. In cases that are not tried publicly, the lawyer taking on the case must not disclose or disseminate case information and materials except that which the law permits to be made public.”
The lawyer faces punishment under Article 5 if, upon learning that the so-called “evidence” of a confession was extracted through torture – as is frequently the case, she or he disseminates this “important” information to the family or the public.
Article 8 of the new rules stifles the freedom of expression of lawyers more broadly, by stating that lawyers cannot make commentary about “…speech that goes against the Party’s line, directives, and policies, that denies the leadership of the Party, or denies the Socialist Rule of Law with Chinese Characteristics” or speech that is “…attacking or vilifying major policies and arrangements of the Party and state.”
China Abandons even the Appearances of “Rule of Law”
The Chinese authorities’ latest move to restrict lawyers’ freedom of speech and the recent persecutions of rights lawyers run counter to the rule of law and against China’s international human rights obligations.
The UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers states that “lawyers like other citizens are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly. In particular, they shall have the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights and to join or form local, national or international organizations and attend their meetings, without suffering professional restrictions by reason of their lawful action or their membership in a lawful organization.”
Similarly, punishing lawyers for taking on “sensitive” clients, as seen in the cases above, also runs counter to the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which states that “lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions” and “Governments shall ensure that lawyers…shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties…”.
With respect to the role of lawyers, the UN Committee against Torture specifically referenced to this principle in its Concluding Observations of its 2015 review of China’s treaty obligations, when it recommended to the Chinese government that:
“The State party should stop sanctioning lawyers for actions taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, such as legitimately advising or representing any client or client’s cause or challenging procedural violations in court, which should be made possible without fear of prosecution under national security laws, or being accused of disrupting the court order (see Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, para. 16).
(a) Ensure the prompt, thorough and impartial investigation of all the human rights violations perpetrated against lawyers, that those responsible are tried and punished in accordance with the gravity of their acts and that the victims obtain redress;
(b) Adopt without delay the necessary measures to ensure the development of a fully independent and self-regulating legal profession, so that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, harassment or improper interference;
(c) Undertake a review of all the legislation affecting the exercise of the legal profession in accordance with international standards, with a view to amending those provisions that undermine lawyers’ independence.”
CHRD recommends that
- The Chinese government must immediately and unconditionally release Hao Jinsong, Qin Yongpei, Li Yuhan, and reinstate the law license of Liang Xiaojun and Lin Qilei and other lawyers. More fundamentally, the Chinese government are obligated under the international treaty to heed the recommendations by the UN Committee against Torture and ensure that it is regulating the legal profession in line with international standards.
- The international community must recognize that even though the Chinese government has become stridently anti-democratic, many Chinese citizens, human rights defenders, and Chinese lawyers have sacrificed their lives and careers to help build the rule of law in China according to international norms. They deserve respect and support.
- International bar associations should communicate with All China Lawyers Association and China’s Ministry of Justice to urge the release of detained lawyers for doing their job and adherence to the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.
- International human rights monitoring organizations and journalists should follow the cases of Hao Jinsong, Qin Yongpei, Li Yuhan, Liang Xiaojun, and Lin Qilei, and raise public awareness of the Chinese government’s disregard of international human rights and rule of law.
Ramona Li, Senior Researcher and Advocate (Mandarin, English), +1 202 556 0667, ramonali [at] nchrd.org, @RamonaLiCHRD
Renee Xia, Director (Mandarin, English), +1 863 866 1012, reneexia[at]nchrd.org, @reneexiachrd
William Nee, Research and Advocacy Coordinator, CHRD, +1-623-295-9604, William [at] nchrd.org, @williamnee