Veteran lawyer urges colleagues to fight for the rule of law
Zhang Sizhi may be 83, but he is still firmly on the front line of the battle between the mainland's lawyers and the law.
In recent months these battle lines have been laid bare to the public like never before thanks to the case of hotel waitress Deng Yujiao . Accused of murdering a cadre, her plight became a national cause fed by netizens impatient with officialdom and social injustice, and last week she was allowed to walk free, albeit with a guilty verdict.
Mr Zhang said Deng's case was proof that lawyers could play a bigger role in helping the public safeguard their rights, and pave the way for the rule of law. Describing lawyers as 'dancers in irons' in a judicial system subject to Communist Party whims, Mr Zhang said they could still achieve more through heightened professionalism, political awareness and strategic thinking.
'Deng's case showed that lawyers could actually become an important force to educate the public with legal knowledge,' said Mr Zhang. 'By safeguarding the correct implementation of laws, they prove themselves the pillar for a nation's rule of law.
'They are not dissidents nor hostile forces, they are a bridge between the government and the public. By helping people solve their problems, they actually help drain off threats to social stability.'
Mr Zhang's career has spanned everything from the establishment of the modern legal system in the 1950s to its total breakdown during the Cultural Revolution, and today's fight for an independent judiciary.
Deng fatally stabbed an official in early May after he reportedly demanded sexual services. As news of the case leaked out - thanks in part to a group of lawyers and bloggers - public sentiment came down firmly on her side. The local government in Badong county, Hubei , began to alter its story, and despite gagging the press, it succumbed to public pressure and allowed Deng to avoid a jail term. However, she was found guilty of using excessive force to defend herself.
'Under the current political system and judicial environment it is impossible for the court to find Deng, an ordinary woman, free of guilt based on the facts,' Mr Zhang said.
'I believe the verdict was a result of instructions by senior officials. It was a wise action to soothe public anger, and such an outcome can be regarded as a limited victory for her.'
The experiences of two Beijing lawyers, Xia Lin and Xia Nan, who travelled to Hubei to represent Deng, brought the hurdles facing lawyers into the spotlight.
After meeting Deng at a detention centre, Xia Lin said they had discovered crucial evidence - torn underwear - which showed she had been the victim of an attempted rape.
Concerned the evidence could be destroyed by police - a common practice - Mr Xia appealed for public help to track down the items. Local officials reacted by sacking the pair.
'There isn't any article of law that forbids lawyers publicising information about the legal case,' Mr Zhang said. 'Lawyers should grasp the chance to release information.
'More importantly, the media and the internet played a very important role in bringing public support.'
Mr Zhang said throughout his career authorities had commonly prevented lawyers from defending clients in politically sensitive cases.
'Dealing with politically sensitive cases or cases with wide public attention, lawyers should try to avoid politicising them and giving authorities an excuse to cut down the legal channels,' he said.