China lawyers subject to official harassment: HRW News
China lawyers subject to official harassment: HRW

[JURIST] Lawyers in China are subject to increasing persecution and intimidation by the Chinese government, according to a report [text; press release] released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website]. The report found that rights lawyers working on cases involving sensitive issues, including land evictions [JURIST report], face the greatest opposition from authorities. According to the report's summary:

Over the past two decades, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has progressively embraced the rule of law as a key part of its agenda to reform the way the country is governed. Importing entire pieces of Western-style legal institutions, the CCP is in the process of establishing a modern court system, has enacted thousands of laws and regulations, and has established hundreds of law schools to train legal professionals. It has publicized through constant propaganda campaigns the idea that common citizens have basic rights, elevated the concept of the "rule of law" to constitutional status, and recognized the validity of human rights norms with a new constitutional clause stipulating that "the state respects and protect human rights."

Yet, Chinese lawyers continue to face huge obstacles in defending citizens whose rights have been violated and ordinary criminal suspects. This report shows that lawyers often face violence, intimidation, threats, surveillance, harassment, arbitrary detention, prosecution, and suspension or disbarment from practicing law for pursuing their profession. This is particularly true in politically sensitive cases. Lawyers are often unable to seek redress for these threats and attacks as law enforcement authorities refuse to investigate abuses, creating a climate of lack of accountability for actions against members of the legal profession.

Instances of abuse by the national government or local authorities against lawyers have disproportionately affected lawyers who are part of the weiquan, or "rights protection" movement, a small but influential movement of lawyers, law experts, and activists who try to assert the constitutional and civil rights of the citizenry through litigation and legal activism. Weiquan lawyers represent cases implicating many of the most serious human rights issues that beset China today: farmers whose land has been seized by local officials, urban residents who have been forcibly evicted, residents resettled from dam and reservoir areas, victims of state agents' or corrupt officials' abuses of power, victims of torture and ill-treatment, criminal defendants, victims of miscarriage of justice, workers trying to recoup unpaid wages and rural migrants who are denied access to education and healthcare.

HRW also expressed concern that the judiciary or bar associations have neither "formal or functional independence" and noted that this makes lawyers "reluctant to work on politically sensitive cases, in particular human rights cases." HRW urged the Chinese government to ensure greater autonomy for lawyers:

Lawyers are playing a greater role than ever in resolving ordinary disputes and representing victims of human rights abuses. They have helped gain recognition of grievances, promoted legal awareness among victims of abuses, advanced consumer rights, provided legal aid and counsel in both judicial and non-judicial settings, fostered better compliance with statutory requirements from law enforcement agencies and courts, and monitored the enforcement of judicial decisions.

If China's legal reform is to reach the next level, however, authorities need to act much more decisively to remove the obstacles that continue to prevent lawyers from playing their proper role. Lawyers' exercise of their profession – including their vigorous defense of controversial clients and causes – requires increased professional autonomy and protection against arbitrary interference by other judicial system actors, particularly though not exclusively in politically sensitive cases. As this report demonstrates, China still has a long way to go to lift arbitrary restrictions on lawyers and establish genuine rule of law.

Several rights lawyers have been detained or prosecuted for suspected "subversion of state power" or other dissident activities during the past several months, including Yang Maodong and Gao Zhisheng [JURIST reports]. Last month, Teng Biao, a lawyer who has defended political dissidents, was released by the Chinese government after spending two days in custody [JURIST report]. China has been harshly criticized in recent months for cracking down on human rights activists and political dissidents [JURIST report] ahead of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. AP has more.