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Crackdown on human rights lawyers intensifies in China

A rights-oriented law firm in Beijing was targeted last week, and subsequent detentions of more than 100 lawyers point to a concerted campaign by authorities.

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Human rights lawyer Wang Yu talks during an interview with Reuters in Beijing, March 1, 2014. China's state media last month cited Wang, the country's most prominent female human rights lawyer, of 'blabbering about the rule of law and human rights' State media said on July 11, 2015 police had criminally detained Wang and some colleagues. Four lawyers taken in for questioning said police had warned them not to advocate for Wang, according to accounts by them and other activists.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters/File

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The sweeping arrest in recent days of more than 100 human rights lawyers across China and the state's depiction in public of them as “troublemakers” represents a sharp stab at one of the most active sectors of Chinese civil society amid one of the harshest such crackdowns in decades, analysts say.

Some 114 lawyers had been arrested or questioned as of Monday during a 72-hour police operation, according to the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, reports the South China Morning Post. Leading figures in the Chinese public-interest law community said the arrests were intended to “terrorize” their colleagues and shock their community.

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While 92 lawyers have now been released, others are missing. Chinese state media has named at least six or seven top advocacy lawyers that could face criminal charges that carry lengthy prison sentences.

“The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published an article in its Sunday edition alleging that some of the lawyers had plotted to organize protests to disturb public order. In a commentary also published Sunday, the People’s Daily accused human-rights lawyers of being the ‘black hands’ behind incidents including ones it described as ‘polluting the Internet’ and disturbing order,” according to the Wall Street Journal. 

The roundups apparently started last week when six lawyers at the Fengrui law firm in Beijing were either taken away or went missing. A leading member of the firm, Wang Yu, known for defending figures like Uighur scholar Ilhem Tohti and free speech advocates, was reported as missing on Wednesday after dropping her family at the airport and returning home to find her electricity shut off. State media cited her as “inciting subversion” and described the law firm as a “major criminal gang.”   

By Friday, which some Chinese rights lawyers are now calling “Black Friday,” it appeared a national police crackdown was underway, with dozens of lawyers arrested or missing. 

Radio Free Asia, a US-government funded service, reports today that:

China has confirmed the detention of a number of its top human rights lawyers, saying they are being investigated for ‘illegally organizing paid protests,’ following a raid on the high-profile public interest law firm Fengrui last week. 

Beijing’s ministry of public security said lawyers were the ‘core organizers’ of a group that is being detained for “illegally organizing paid protests, hyping public sentiment and fabricating rumors on the Internet to sway court decisions,” the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

In the past decade the number of lawyers in China willing to represent prisoners, ethnic minorities, religious groups and public interest causes has quietly grown from a handful to many hundreds. Some analysts say their growing popularity has caused the government to become fearful of them. 

Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer and fellow at Harvard Law School, says the present moment seems like a “low valley” for rights-oriented lawyers but attributes this to the success of independent thinking. "The Communist Party calculates that only by becoming more severe can it control the rapid growth of civil society,” he told the Monitor. 

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The legal community is the latest and most dramatic target in an authoritarian campaign by President Xi Jinping to reassert the primacy of the Communist Party and to reverse the influence of Western society and values in the area of arts, education, the internet, Protestant evangelicalism and other outside influences. (As many as 40 percent of the human rights lawyers in China are Protestants, studies show.)

Jerome Cohen of New York University, a leading US expert on the Chinese legal system, described the latest roundup of lawyers as “insane.” China’s leaders “must be in desperate straits to engage in this extraordinary, coordinated attack on human-rights lawyers,” Professor Cohen told the WSJ.