At The New York Times, Cherie Chan reports on human rights lawyers’ concerns that proposed changes to China’s criminal law, which could land attorneys in jail for courtroom conduct vaguely defined in the provisions, could limit their ability to effectively defend clients:
The changes to China’s criminal law, which the National People’s Congress took up last week, would criminalize “insulting, defaming or threatening judicial officers,” “not heeding the court’s admonition” or “severely disrupting courtroom order.” Violators would face potential fines and up to three years of imprisonment.
The changes toughen the current law, which only restricts “gathering people to stir up trouble in a court” or assault on judicial officers.
“The amendment will put huge psychological pressure on lawyers,” said Li Fangping, a human rights lawyer based in Beijing. “Lawyers will have to be very careful when speaking up in court.”
After the changes were proposed last year, more than 500 lawyers signed an open letter in protest. They said there was no clear definition of “insulting,” “defaming” and “threatening,” leaving it up the authorities to decide what constitutes a violation. The letter said the changes would put defense lawyers at a disadvantage and restrain their freedom to speak.
[…] “In the past, the worst-case scenario was that lawyers would be beaten up for speaking up in court,” Mr. Li said. “With the new law, they can be imprisoned.”
The authorities “can use this law whenever they feel necessary,” he said. […] [Source]
Human rights lawyers in China have long faced assault by police and court enforcement officials, as was recently seen in April when lawyer Cui Hui was assaulted in Beijing, or earlier this month when Tang Jingling was attacked by plain-clothed personnel outside of a political trial in Guangzhou. Last week, a post from Human Rights Watch outlined 11 other cases where lawyers were physically assaulted while doing their jobs over the past year, described cases where lawyers have been incarcerated even prior to the proposed changes to the criminal law, and explained how this directly undermines the rule of law:
Physical assaults are just one of many dangers lawyers – especially those who defend unpopular issues or clients – face in advocating for their clients’ fair trial rights, as previously detailed by Human Rights Watch. They are also vulnerable to detention and imprisonment: human rights lawyer Tang Jingling is currently detained for “inciting subversion,” while human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang is detained for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Both are expected to be tried in the coming months.
Article 306 of the Criminal Law also allows lawyers to be prosecuted for “enticing” suspects to “falsify evidence” or “change their testimony contrary to facts,” which gives the authorities another powerful tool to intimidate lawyers. Lawyers can also be denied a license to practice, especially during the annual evaluation of their performance by judicial authorities. In August 2014, for example, Cheng Hai was suspended from practice in Beijing and Wang Quanping had his license cancelled in Guangdong Province, both because of their work representing clients in what are perceived as sensitive cases, such as those imprisoned for involvement in the New Citizens Movement, a group that promotes civic rights and participation.
“Lawyers in China should go into court fearing that the worst possible outcome is losing their case – not violent assault by officers of the court,” Richardson said. “That such beatings take place, including in courtrooms, and without accountability, is a powerful indictment of the Chinese government’s hollow claim to the ‘rule of law.’” [Source]