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In the Eye of the Storm: Being a Rights Lawyer in China Today

12/07/2016 16:37 | Updated 12 July 2016

July is often Beijing's hottest month. The humidity is draining. Sometimes a thunderstorm breaks through the oppressive heat, for a while.

This time last year, lawyers across China found themselves at the eye of a different kind of storm. They were part of a community of 'rights lawyers', so-called because they work on 'sensitive' cases defending the rights of petitioners and victims of police abuse, for example.

By 12 July 2015, over a hundred had been detained, interrogated, or forcibly disappeared. Law firms were searched and shut down. Friends and relatives desperately tried to reach lawyers who had been summoned by the police. The Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group posted updates every day, sometimes every few hours, as the number of lawyers detained continued to rise. The crackdown was not confined to Beijing: it stretched across the country, sweeping up not only rights lawyers but activists, family members and colleagues.

The crackdown has been criticised by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a joint statement signed by 12-UN member states, and the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, as well as numerous non-governmental organisations.

One year on, many of those detained have been released, but for those still detained there has been little or no news. Over three hundred people have been touched by the clampdown on the legal rights defence community, dubbed the 709 Crackdown. More than 20 have been officially arrested. In the most serious cases, they are accused of subverting state power, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Against this backdrop, what is it like to be a rights lawyer today?

Alongside the high profile detentions, more cases of harassment of lawyers in the courts are coming to light. On 3 June, lawyer Wu Liangshu had his clothes torn off by three court police officers while requesting to file a case in the Qingxiu District Court in Nanning, Guangxi Province. Wu claims he was beaten and choked by the officers in the presence of two judges and one other official when he refused to hand over his mobile phone for inspection. Over 1,000 lawyers signed a joint letter to demand that the officers involved be held to account, and the case was even reported in the Global Times, an English-language paper under the Communist Party's People's Daily.

While the coverage and response is unusual, however, the incident itself it not. As Lawyer Wu told the BBC, there are "plenty of weird and violent stories of things happening to lawyers in China". On 18 June 2015, just before the crackdown, a lawyer in Shandong Province was dragged from the court room by court bailiffs and beaten at the direction of the presiding judge.

Rights lawyers have long since reported harassment, intimidation and assaults by security officers outside the court: many veteran rights lawyers have been tortured on multiple occasions. Meanwhile the Chinese media have criticised lawyers for "colluding with petitioners" and "stirring up" public opinion issues, branding those detained in July as members of a criminal gang.

A large number of lawyers in China, of course, are not directly affected by these affairs. Lawyers who work on commercial cases, for example, and do not take on those which are 'sensitive' or 'political', most often go about their work without harassment. Indeed, many of the lawyers now detained started out like this.

However, the mistreatment of lawyers in the courts in particular has wider implications for the profession. A lack of respect for individual lawyers indicates a lack of respect for their profession, and by extension the law itself.

Avoiding these 'sensitive' issues and cases is an option for both those inside the country and lawyers, companies and governments outside doing business with China.

No-one would blame a Mainland Chinese lawyer for steering clear of cases which she or he knows will draw the attention of the authorities. Not everyone is in a position to risk their career, their reputation and their safety, and the events of the past year have shown that the consequences of taking up such cases are not only borne by the lawyers but by their spouses and children too.

But for those outside the country, the risk is surely less. On the anniversary of the crackdown we might ask ourselves, could we be doing more to stand with legal professionals in China?

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