Chinese authorities must end their ruthless assault against human rights lawyers and activists, Amnesty International said ahead of the first anniversary of the start of an unprecedented crackdown.
Human rights lawyers have faced the full wrath of China’s secretive machinery of repression. The detained lawyers must be released and this systemic assault against individuals defending the rights of Chinese people must end.Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International.
At least 248 human rights lawyers and activists were targeted during the nationwide sweep which began on 9 July 2015. One year on, 17 individuals caught up in the onslaught remain detained, eight of whom could face life imprisonment after being charged with “subverting state power”.
“Human rights lawyers have faced the full wrath of China’s secretive machinery of repression. The detained lawyers must be released and this systemic assault against individuals defending the rights of Chinese people must end,” said Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International.
“President Xi Jinping has the gall to claim the Chinese government upholds the rule of law even when lawyers face life in jail for trying to do just that.”
The authorities have used an armoury of repression in an attempt to break the lawyers. Most of those detained in the crackdown were denied legal counsel and contact with their family, a clear violation of their rights.
Missing lawyers and activists – including prominent Beijing lawyer Wang Yu whose vanishing marked the start of the crackdown – were placed under a form of secret detention known as “residential surveillance in a designated location”. This allows the police to hold suspects for up to six months outside of the formal detention system, without access to anybody outside, and places suspects at great risk of torture and other ill-treatment.
The authorities were also swift in unleashing a propaganda war in state media, accusing the Fengrui law firm in Beijing, which has worked on many sensitive cases, of being at the centre of “a major criminal gang”. Four lawyers from the firm, including Wang Yu, remain in detention on state security charges.
Wang Yu’s husband and fellow lawyer, Bao Longjun, faces up to 15 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power”. The couple’s teenage son, Bao Zhuoxuan, remains under close police surveillance after he was captured across the border in Myanmar in October 2015. Bao Zhuoxuan was attempting to leave China after being previously blocked from studying abroad. There has been a clear pattern of the authorities using family members as leverage against suspects, a clear violation of international law.
“These are dark days for human rights in China. The authorities have used every repressive and dirty trick in the book to crush this respected group of lawyers, who they apparently see as a threat to the power of the Communist Party,” said Roseann Rife.
“Lawyers play a crucial role in protecting human rights and the rule of law, and the authorities must stop arresting them by the dozens and misusing state security laws against them.”
The crackdown against human rights lawyers is part of a calculated operation by the Chinese government to suppress civil society. New or proposed laws give the authorities unchecked powers to target individuals and organizations that are seen to criticize the government and its policies.
A new Anti-Terrorism Law, passed in December 2015, includes virtually no safeguards to prevent those who practice their religion or criticize government policy from being prosecuted for “terrorism” or “extremism” offences. A new Foreign NGO law will severely restrict legitimate activities and ultimately stifle civil society.
The crackdown against lawyers began in the early hours of 9 July 2015, when prominent Beijing lawyer Wang Yu went missing after she sent panicked phone messages to friends. The messages stated her internet and electricity had been cut off, and that people were trying to break into her home.
In the following days hundreds of lawyers and activists across the country were targeted with dozens of individuals taken away by police. All had supported victims of human rights abuses in China and represented these victims in the legal process.
*The number of those still detained in this story was updated on 7 July, after Tianjin Police announced that one of the detained lawyers, Zhao Wei, was released on bail.