Human Rights Lawyers Face Debarment for Involvement in Politically Sensitive Cases

The Chinese government has moved to strip two of their licenses to practice, following their involvement in legal cases against citizen journalist Zhang Zhan and the 12 Hong Kong activists caught fleeing the city in 2020. The lawyers, Lu Siwei and Ren Quanniu, received letters on January 4 informing them of plans to revoke their licenses. Hong Kong Free Press’ Rhoda Kwan reported on the notices delivered to the two lawyers:

In a letter informing Lu of administrative punishment proceedings against him released Monday, the Sichuan province’s Department of Justice accused him of “publishing inappropriate speech online.”

[…] “Upon investigation, this department found that you have published inappropriate speech online on multiple occasions – the considerable length of time with a vast number of posts have seriously harmed the image of the lawyer profession and caused a negative impact upon society,” the notice read.

[…] Later on Monday, Ren also received a similar notice from authorities informing him of their intention to revoke his licence. Ren had represented citizen journalist who was jailed for four years last week for her coverage of the Wuhan Covid-19 outbreak. In a notice from the Henan province’s Department of Justice, authorities cited alleged wrongdoing from 2018.

According to mainland Chinese law, both lawyers are entitled to provide a statement and file a defence. They required to officially request for a hearing within three days, at the end of which they will be deemed to have given up the right to plead their cases. [Source]

The timing of the letters is noteworthy, coming shortly after both of the politically sensitive cases concluded last week. In the case of the Hong Kong 12, Lu and Ren were in fact barred from representing the defendants, who were instead assigned government-appointed lawyers. The New York Times’ Austin Ramzy reported that a family members of the 12 decried the debarring of the lawyers as state-sponsored retaliation:

Mr. Lu and Mr. Ren were each given three days to arrange hearings over their licenses, but Mr. Ren said he had little hope of a successful appeal.

A group representing family members of the activists said they believed the timing of the actions against the two lawyers indicated that they were “obviously revenge for their involvement” in the Hong Kong case.

“For their daring to go against the powers that be, and persistence in upholding the rights of the twelve, the authorities have resorted to ending their professional career and cutting off their livelihoods,” the families said in a statement. [Source]

In addition to the Zhang Zhan and Hong Kong 12 cases, Lu Siwei has also been involved in the case of jailed human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng. Yu was jailed in June 2020 on charges of subversion after he penned a letter calling on delegates of the 19th Party Congress to remove Xi Jinping and implement political reforms. William Yang reported that the prospect of Lu eventually losing his license would likely hurt Yu’s legal representation.

It has become significantly more perilous for human rights lawyers to operate in China since the 709 crackdown of 2015, when more than 200 human rights activists and lawyers were arrested. In December of 2020, an independent expert with the U.N. described a “five-year assault” on lawyers who stand up for human rights. Nonetheless, in a letter titled “Better to Die for One’s Words Than Survive on Silence,” a group of human rights lawyers as part of the China Human Rights Lawyers Group struck a defiant tone while ushering in the new year:

In facing the advancement and even retrenchment of constitutionalism, rule of law, and human rights, what should we do? Continue to sacrifice freedom and dignity for security, or break our silence to speak up and say no to every violation of these rights?

[…] All citizens must ask themselves, does the fact that Dr. Li Wenliang (李文亮) was summoned and chastised by police at the very start of the coronavirus pandemic have nothing to do with you? Do those whose land was illegally taken, homes forcibly demolished, and who were illegally jailed have nothing to do with you? Do the human rights lawyers who were illegally stripped of their credentials have nothing to do with you? All of these things bear on you! When you’re in the midst of a pandemic, unable to move freely, or even have friends and family fall ill, when you or your relatives’ property is forcibly taken, home is demolished, when you are imprisoned by the state and no lawyer dares speak up for you… this means that these violations of human rights are directly and indirectly related to you. Therefore, speaking out against injustices done to others is an obligation for all. Fighting for your rights and those of others is a duty every person has towards the community.

[…] Zhang Zhan had this to say: “Looking upward, I am pregnant with hope, I only have to look up, the sky may still be able to drop raindrops; looking downward, full of despair, such despair that comes from people’s submissive existence.” At this moment, Zhang Zhan is still in Shanghai’s Pudong Detention Center continuing her hunger strike, protesting the injustice and miscarriage of justice. Surely she must be more deeply disoriented by this present intertwining of hope and despair. But surely she must be in touch with our hearts.

Then, let’s raise our eyes upward, look up to the stars while planting our feet on the ground. On the first day of 2021, let’s shout out from the heart: we will never be walking corpses. We will continue to concern ourselves with all the sufferings and injustices, until the day that constitutionalism, rule of law, human rights and democracy come to China. [Source]

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