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China cracks down on human rights lawyers

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The firm also has a reputation for taking up legal cudgels on behalf of ordinary citizens who claim to have been mistreated by the authorities.

Yitong has been a leading light in the "rights defense movement," through which "increasing numbers of citizens are using the legal system as a means of redress for violations of their rights," states a 2007 report by Human Rights in China, a New York-based watchdog group.

The result, according to the report, is that "lawyers are increasingly being attacked for defending them."

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department in Haidian, the Beijing district where the firm is headquartered, says she could not comment on the Yitong case because it had not yet been finally decided.

A system 'designed to intimidate'

Mr. Li, however, says the closure order accuses his firm of illegally employing a lawyer who does not have a professional license to practice law. He denies the charge, saying the employee dealt only with administrative, not legal matters.

The allegation, however, underscores a major hindrance to the practice of law in China.

The lawyer in question, Li Subin, a former deputy director of the firm, was denied the chance to renew his professional license by the provincial authorities in Henan, whose judicial bureau he had successfully sued for overcharging.

The Henan authorities' refusal to process Li Subin's paperwork when he moved to Beijing made it impossible for him to practice law.

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