In less than a week, from July 9 to date, Chinese authorities have disappeared, detained, or questioned at least 159 lawyers and activists throughout China. The lawyers, including Wang Yu (王宇), Zhou Shifeng (周世鋒), Li Heping (李和平), and Sui Muqing (隋牧青), are known for their rights defense work, such as representing clients facing persecution for their religious beliefs, forced evictions, and rights defense activities. (See China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group’s website for an updated list.)
The current nationwide police action against lawyers is unprecedented in scale, far surpassing a similar crackdown following the Jasmine Revolution in 2011, when 24 lawyers were disappeared and 52 more were criminally detained.
“The massive rounding up of frontline legal advocates whose roles are to protect rights exposes the government’s ‘rule-by-law’ policy for what it is: a weapon for repression,” says Sharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China. “It also seriously undermines China’s international credibility and domestic legitimacy.”
State-run media have characterized the targeted lawyers as “a major criminal gang,” accusing “radical human rights lawyers” of “stirring up several serious public opinion issues” and “disrupt[ing] the legal process.”
Criminalizing lawyers’ efforts to bring greater public awareness to issues within the Chinese criminal justice system and related to specific cases is a blatant violation of China’s own Constitution (Article 35, guaranteeing freedom of expression and association) as well as international standards, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Articles 19 and 20) and the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which states:
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. . . (Article 23)
The crackdown also demonstrates the Chinese authorities’ total disregard for the concerns expressed over nearly a decade by international human rights experts on the independence of judges and lawyers, torture, and economic, cultural, and social rights regarding the detention and harassment of Chinese lawyers. Most recently, the UN Committee Against Torture has requested additional information regarding targeting of human rights lawyers for China’s upcoming review in November 2015. Alarmingly, at least seven of the individuals targeted in the current crackdown—Chen Wuquan (陈武权), Li Heping (李和平), Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Liu Shihui (刘士辉), Wang Cheng (王成), Wang Quanping (王全平), and Wang Quanzhang (王全章)—are among the cases raised by the Committee in its advance questions to China.
HRIC urges the Chinese government to immediately cease further detentions and release the lawyers and activists who remain detained solely for speech- or association-related activities, and respect its international obligations. The international community needs to stand in solidarity with the Chinese lawyers fighting for China’s future.