Detentions of artist Ai Weiwei’s lawyer and numerous others reveal Beijing’s fear about growth in rights activism, says
Tania Branigan in Beijing
theguardian.com, Tuesday 17 June 2014 10.09 EDT
The arrest of Pu Zhiqiang, 50, is part of current repression of rights lawyers in China and is the most serious since 1989, say colleagues. Photograph: Ng Han Guan/AP
Chinese rights lawyers have warned that they are under mounting pressure, with the formal arrest of one of China’s best-known advocates, Pu Zhiqiang, and multiple detentions.
One bleak joke doing the rounds is that “even lawyers’ lawyers need lawyers” these days. Advocate Liu Weiguo posted a poem online which begins: “If I am arrested one day/Friends, fellow lawyers/You must/Must/Go public, take a stand and make a fuss.”
Lawyers complain that some have been seized while trying to meet clients and that others are being repeatedly refused access to detainees.
Teng Biao, a close friend and colleague of Pu now living in Hong Kong, warned: “The current suppression of rights lawyers is worse than in the 2011 ‘Jasmine’ period [when scores of activists were detained after online calls for protest]. It is the most serious since 1989.”
Teng and many others were detained in 2011, with several subsequently reporting beatings, sleep deprivation and other abuses.
Pu, 50, has acted in a series of sensitive cases. He represented Ai Weiwei during the artist’s detention and helped to raise awareness of civic rights more generally. His niece and fellow lawyer Qu Zhenhong is also being held.
Beijing’s public security bureau said on Friday that Pu had been arrested on suspicion of “creating a disturbance” and “illegally obtaining personal information”. But his supporters say the charges are an attempt to silence the outspoken lawyer. Many activists have been prosecuted for the offence of creating a disturbance in recent months.
Pu was detained in May after attending a small private event to mark the 25th anniversary of the bloody suppression of Tiananmen Square’s pro-democracy protests in 1989.
His lawyer Zhang Sizhi, who was not able to see him until after his first month in custody, has said online that Pu faces “many and broad” allegations.
Meanwhile, 121 legal professionals signed a letter this week protesting the lack of access to two more lawyers held in Zhengzhou, Henan province, since last month.
Mo Shaoping, another leading advocate, said that detention houses were only permitted to deny access to lawyers if the case involved national security, corruption, or organised crime.
But police insisted that lawyers Chang Boyang and Ji Laisong could not be seen because even though they were accused of the ordinary criminal offence of creating a disturbance – not a state security offence – their case nonetheless involved matters of endangering state security.
Dozens of lawyers have travelled to Zhengzhou in recent weeks to highlight the case. One of them, Li Fangping, warned: “Access to clients for lawyers is getting harder and harder … We are very worried that if the Zhengzhou case cannot be corrected, other places will copy it, and this trend will spread.”
Chang’s wife, who gave her name only as Ms Deng, said authorities had been “shameless”, adding: “We believe he got detained because he has been helping people to maintain their legal rights.”
Zhengzhou police said they had never heard of either advocate and did not deal with foreign media.
Chang had reportedly been seeking lawyers to help people detained in connection with the Tiananmen anniversary and another detained advocate – Tang Jingling, held in Guangzhou – is thought to have been told by police not to get involved in any commemorations.
But Li suggested recent cases also reflected the broader pressure on lawyers, particularly those known as the “unyielding” group. Authorities appear to be particularly anxious about attempts to harness public opinion or encourage debate about cases.
Two more lawyers, Chen Jiangang and Zhao Yonglin, were reportedly detained in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, on Monday after requesting to see a young activist who has been criminally detained.
Calls to the police station where they are thought to be held rang unanswered.
Earlier this year, four rights lawyers –Jiang Tianyong, Tang Jitian, Wang Cheng and Zhang Jie – were given 15 days’ administrative detention after going to Jiamusi, Heilongjiang province, to investigate an illegal detention.
The justice ministry did not answer repeated calls or respond to faxed queries about working conditions for lawyers in China.
A piece published by the populist state tabloid Global Times last month said activist lawyers such as Pu had contributed to the improvement of China’s rule of law and social equity, but had been “politically destructive”.
It added: “Judicial means are not the only method they would like to use to protect civil rights, and mobilising online public opinion and even supporting and joining illegal activities have become their new favourites.”
Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent law scholar in Hong Kong, said the crackdown reflected the leadership’s concerns about the growth in rights activism during the past decade.
“What [Chinese premier] Xi Jinping has done … is basically say: ‘Look, we in the party-state share your desire for justice – we are in the best position to help you reach what you want, but you have to fall in line.'”
That message was accompanied by the repression of debates by rights advocates and a reform agenda that has already seen the abolition of re-education through labour camps. On Monday, state media reported that China would launch six pilot schemes across the country to overhaul its judicial system and curb abuses of power and wrongful convictions, while stressing that the Chinese Communist party’s control of the system must endure.
Rosenzweig added: “I think ultimately questions will continue to rear their heads [among the public]. They are just postponing the inevitable crisis of credibility.”