The number of lawyers and activists detained, questioned, or missing since “Black Friday” on July 10 has now passed 230, with 14 still in custody and the whereabouts of another six unknown. The sweep has focused on the Beijing-based Fengrui law firm, whose alleged organization of online and offline protests has been described in state media as “very close to blackmailing a court into a favorable verdict through the pressure of media and public opinion.”
Similar charges, though, might be leveled back at state media. Their concerted campaign against the lawyers, which other organizations have been ordered to amplify, has now escalated with the announcement of a fresh wave of detainees’ confessions. The Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong reports:
Zhou Shifeng and some of his associates at the Beijing Fengrui law firm—known for taking on politically sensitive cases—have admitted to wrongdoing ranging from hyping up legal cases to spreading smears against China’s legal system, according to a report published Saturday by the state-run Xinhua News Agency and the Communist Party mouthpiece, People’s Daily.
[…] “The law firm has indeed broken the law, this is without doubt,” Mr. Zhou, Fengrui’s director, was quoted as saying by Xinhua and People’s Daily. “There were indeed specific instances of illegality and criminality, and the errors were fairly serious.”
[…] Rights groups criticized the Xinhua and People’s Daily reports for presenting what appeared to be a definitive conclusion on the case before the completion of legal proceedings. Such pretrial airing of confessions have become an increasingly favored tactic for Chinese authorities seeking to shape public opinion on politically sensitive cases, despite Mr. Xi’s purported campaign to promote rule of law.
“The whole tone of the state-media reports presents the case against the alleged ‘criminal gang’ as established fact, rather than allowing a fair and impartial court process to decide this,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International. “The confessions that they’ve obtained seem like they are fitting the government’s preapproved narrative.” [Source]
Xinhua’s account of the latest confessions also described the detainees’ apparent denunciations of each other:
Meanwhile, suspect Liu Sixin, a firm assistant with a law PhD, revealed that he wrote and prepared basically all documents needed for a hearing and Zhou only read verbatim at court, describing Zhou’s work as “very unprofessional.”
[…] “Wang Yu enjoyed quite a reputation in the lawyer industry. Although she earned it mostly from shrewish quarrels and public exposure, it was an indisputable fact that everybody knew her,” Zhou said.
[…] “Our acts were not compatible with a normal lawyer. Whether practicing the law or being a citizen, no matter what problems emerge, we should always resort to legal channels to solve them,” Liu said.
Liu added that “savage acts” can only become negative factors in the country’s rule of law and might also be taken advantage by foreign malicious forces. [Source]
Another Xinhua report quoted legal experts backing the lawyers’ prosecution, and described their alleged disruption of legal proceedings:
“Lawyers are supposed to safeguard the law,” said Wang Jinxi, a law professor with China University of Political Science and Law. “Being a lawyer does not mean they can break the law, and no country allows people to carry out criminal activities just because they are lawyers,” Wang said.
Wang said some Western politicians and media outlets that described the police actions as “cracking down on rights defenders” were ignoring the facts.
[…] Camera recordings for a court hearing in the northeastern city of Shenyang in April showed several defense lawyers affiliated with the firm shouting and screaming shortly after the trial opened, despite judges’ calls for order.
They hurled insults at judges and later targeted police trying to interfere, with the firm’s lawyer Wang Yu pointing fingers and calling them “hooligans.” The trial was forced to a halt. [Source]
The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield presented a different picture of Wang in a profile on Saturday:
She was a mild-mannered commercial lawyer working on patent disputes and the like until an incident at a train station in Tianjin at the end of 2008. She had an altercation with station employees after they stopped her from getting on a train, even though she had a ticket, and was then assaulted by several men.
But several months later, it was Wang — not the men who beat her — who was charged with “intentional assault.” After a lengthy and questionable legal process, she spent 21/2 years in jail.
There, she saw how prisoners were forced to work for no pay and heard their tales of being mistreated and tortured, her friends and associates say. When she emerged in 2011, Wang had transformed into a human rights advocate, taking on some of the most high-profile cases in China.
[…] Last month, the state-run Xinhua News Agency ran an unsigned commentary about Wang that was apparently designed to smear her reputation. “This arrogant woman with a criminal record turned overnight to a lawyer, blabbering about the rule of law, human rights, and justice, and roaming around under the flag of ‘rights defense,’ ” it said.
[…] Maya Wang of Human Rights Watch said the detained attorney is no firebrand. “She’s softly spoken and she’s very serious about her work,” she said. “First and foremost, she’s a lawyer. The entire crackdown on her and her law firm is a political crackdown against lawyers who are just trying to do their jobs in implementing the rule of law.” [Source]
Wang is not the only one to have suffered personal attacks on top of accusations of criminality. Zhou has been labeled a lecherous womanizer as well as a corrupt and incompetent lawyer. Wu Gan, an activist with links to Fengrui who is also known as “Super Vulgar Butcher,” was the target of a smear campaign from state media after his detention in May. Fei Chang Dao notes that People’s Daily highlighted an extramarital affair, a “vulgar” novel he once wrote, and a 1998 assault on a chicken farm allegedly orchestrated by his father as illustrations of his flawed character. (For more on the connections between Wu Gan and the recent crackdown on lawyers, read CDT’s interview with NGO activist Lu Jun.)
According to official accounts, the lawyers and their co-conspirators were motivated by the desire for fame and wealth. In an op-ed at The Washington Post, though, Harvard-based rights lawyer Teng Biao argued that the latter rationale makes little sense, especially given the hardships that rights work can incur:
If they chose, these professionals could reap a substantial salary doing other sorts of legal work — but their belief in the rule of law and liberty and their sense of responsibility leads them to this path. It is one beset by thorns, but it is also full of honor. They win the love and respect of ordinary people and they accumulate social influence. Working together in the battle for human rights, through the relentless persecution, they have formed deep friendships. Using social media, they have brought together an informal organization that can be rapidly mobilized. Every time there’s a serious legal incident, hundreds of them take steps to publicize the matter, mobilize citizens to make their voices heard and, when necessary, dispatch lawyers to take up the case.
[…] The arrests of the past week mark an important historical moment in China’s legal profession. It’s likely that, just as in the past, those who were disappeared are being tortured. But this crackdown won’t silence the rights lawyers, and it won’t stop the march toward human rights and dignity in China. Rights lawyers will rise from the ashes with an even deeper sense of their historical responsibility. [Source]
Earlier expressions of concern at the lawyers’ treatment have been followed by others from groups including rights investigators at the United Nations; the European Union and Canadian and Australian governments; legal societies in Hong Kong, the U.K., and Australia; and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong. A commentary at Xinhua on Friday brushed these protests off, however, warning foreign critics “not to mistake law enforcement for a rights crackdown”:
Western critics are all steamed up after Chinese police authorities announced Wednesday the apprehension of a group of lawyers, social media celebrities and petitioners alike for allegedly disrupting public order and seeking profits by illegally organizing paid protests and swaying court decisions in the name of “defending justice and public interests.”
Lawyers should never have to suffer prosecution or any other kind of sanctions or intimidation for “discharging their professional duties,” some claimed. Others blame the “ferocity” of the attack against rights lawyers.
Few, however, seem to bother whether the “discharging of professional duties” by the arrested lawyers, many of whom belong to the Beijing-based Fengrui Law Firm, was in line with Chinese laws.
[…] If the confessions are true, their actions would hardly win any sympathy in a law-based society, let alone support for their release.
[…] Critics should first get the facts right, get to the bottom of the problem before embarrassing themselves in another unavailing episode of finger-pointing, because after all, the arrest of lawless lawyers is nothing more than a legal issue. [Source]
This question of whether the confessions are true is a real one, as many appear to have been coerced or concocted in the past. Journalist Gao Yu was sentenced to seven years in prison in April for distributing state secrets, based largely on a televised confession reportedly made after investigators threatened her son. Teng Biao highlighted the possibility of more direct coercion on Twitter last week:
During the 2011 “Jasmine” period, I was seized and locked up for 70 days. I was tortured, and then videotaped. So don’t be too critical of those who confessed on CCTV. It’s very possible that they were forced into it with torture or other extreme pressure. […] [Chinese]
Quartz’s Zheping Huang examined earlier confessions in the case in the context of an upswing in televised confessions since 2013. One, he wrote, may have been obtained through trickery, and presented out of context:
[…] Last month police in the Shandong province busted a group alleged to have organized massive protests to influence a court sentence. “I deeply regret my wrongdoings,” said just-detained lawyer Liu Jianjun in a CCTV broadcast (link in Chinese).
Liu had served in the case that drew the protests. One of his defenders told Radio Free Asia (link in Chinese) that Liu was tricked into the interview by a police officer who’d promised to not identify him or show his face on TV. Liu was not admitting his guilt, the defender explained, but apologizing for traffic congestion at the protest site. [Source]
In the unrelated current case of 20 foreigners detained for watching “terrorist propaganda”—apparently a misunderstanding over a Genghis Khan documentary—reported confessions may have been fabricated entirely. Xinhua claimed that some of those detained had “admitted to their illegal acts and repented,” but one Briton involved countered that “nobody repented or admitted to anything whatsoever, as there was no crime to repent or admit to.”
Meanwhile at China Daily, Cao Yin reports on proposals to “protect lawyers’ rights” and help them function as effective components of a balanced legal system:
A total of 270,000 lawyers across the country play an important role in the process of justice and improving judicial credibility, according to the Supreme People’s Court.
The top court required in a guideline it issued this year that all courts must respect attorneys and listen to their defense opinions carefully.
The guideline also stipulates that lawyers’ rights, including making inquiries and debating a case in a hearing, must be fully protected, and courts cannot make discriminatory security checks on them.
[…] “A lawyer is a necessity in a case, whether it is criminal, administrative, civil or commercial. If we don’t attach importance to the lawyer’s role, the legal community will not be balanced,” said Sheng Leiming, director of the All China Lawyers Association.
He compared the lawyer, prosecutor and judge to a triangle, saying it will keep stable and firm only when each role is improved to the same level. [Source]