Blind Injustice – Li Jinsong et al

The following is the final version of a piece that ran in today’s Asian Wall Street Journal, written by Beijing-based rights defense lawyers Li Jinsong, Zhang Lihui, Li Fangping, Teng Biao, and Xu Zhiyong:

Chen Guangcheng, a blind advocate for the rights of Chinese villagers, recently made headlines around the world when he was sentenced to four years and three months in prison. But, as his chosen lawyers, we were prevented from presenting a fair defense by obstacles erected by Chinese authorities. A local court imposed unacceptable terms on us defending our client at his August 18 trial. Before the trial, we had been detained by police, intimidated, and one lawyer was not freed until the trial was over. Except for Mr. Chen’s three brothers, no other members of the public, not even his wife and mother, were allowed to attend the two-hour hearing.

That’s why we are using these columns to outline the defense that was never presented in court, and explain how our client was convicted of crimes he did not commit.

In those closed-door proceedings, Chinese officials punished Mr. Chen for disclosing their own criminal activities–forcing villagers to undergo sterilizations and forced abortions, even though these are officially illegal under Chinese law.

Had we not been barred from the courtroom, we would have argued that the trial was unlawful. The two government-appointed lawyers, whom Mr. Chen refused to accept, had never met him before the trial nor read any of the files on his case. They did not offer any defense during the hearing, but merely repeated everything the prosecutors said.

The pre-trial process also violated Chinese law and infringed basic human-rights principles. A self-taught lawyer, Mr. Chen has long helped the disabled and peasants fight illegal taxes and environmental pollution. In June 2005, he filed a class-action lawsuit accusing local officials in Yinan County in northeastern Shandong Province, of forcing peasants to undergo abortions or sterilizations in order to meet birth-control quotas. Two months later, Yinan officials placed Mr. Chen under house arrest. Then in March this year he was taken away by police. When we were finally allowed to meet Mr. Chen in June, he told us that police had verbally abused him, threatened his life, and once deprived him of sleep for three days.

Ever since the first of us took on Chen’s case in September last year, we have been pressured by local authorities to drop it. When we refused to do so, we were beaten and intercepted by government officials as we tried to carry out investigations and collect evidence.

Both of the charges on which Mr. Chen was convicted are groundless. The first, “intentional destruction of property,” is based on a clash on Feb. 15 this year between villagers and police, who had beaten another villager protesting Mr. Chen’s illegal house arrest. But it was local officials, rather than Mr. Chen, who were responsible for “inciting” this incident by carrying out that beating.

People we interviewed said the villagers did no more than push police vehicles into a roadside ditch, and that they only acted in this way because police refused to take the victim’s grandmother to hospital, after she passed out on hearing of the beating.

As for the second charge of “gathering crowds to obstruct traffic,” once again it was the police rather than Mr. Chen who were responsible for this. On March 11, guards used by the local authorities to enforce the house arrest beat up another villager trying to meet Mr. Chen. Angry villagers then clashed with the guards and succeeded in getting Mr. Chen out of his house so that he could accompany them to the local government offices to protest. As they tried to get rides into town, police and guards surrounded them and temporarily stopped traffic until they could wrestle Mr. Chen and two other villagers into police cars, and take them into custody.

The prosecutors introduced testimony from other detained villagers, accusing Mr. Chen of “inciting” property destruction. But lawyers representing these villagers were never allowed to meet with them. Nor were they allowed to cross-examine these “witnesses.” Family members of these villagers, who were detained for supporting Mr. Chen, said that they were mistreated in jail and forced to testify against Mr. Chen.

The real criminal suspects in this case are the officials responsible for obstructing justice and undermining the country’s legal reform.

These local officials could hardly have acted with such contempt and disregard for the law unless they had been given the green light by authorities higher up in the government. Nonetheless, in appealing Mr. Chen’s case to a higher court, we will act on the assumption that the country’s legal system can, without official interference, deliver a fair verdict and remedy wrongs. This may prove to be too optimistic. But we can only find out by fighting for justice, case by case, one client at a time.

Messrs. Li Jinsong, Zhang, Li Fangping, Teng and Xu are Beijing-based lawyers.