Harassing lawyers only fuels discontent

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 January, 2011, 12:00am

It has often been said that judicial reform and the implementation of rule of law are immediate and achievable priorities on the mainland. In the past few years, the central government has given indications that it is determined to improve the professionalism of judges, root out corruption and provide clearer judicial guidelines in order to inspire greater public confidence in the judicial system. Just this year, the courts were issued guidelines to resist pressure from local governments and to reject the widely held view that lawsuits against governments stir up trouble and that admitting past judgments are wrong undermines judicial authority.

Sadly, the assessment of most lawyers who handle the more high-profile cases involving allegations of government wrongdoing is that the rule of law has regressed rather than progressed on the mainland. This year, with increasing international attention on the plight of dissidents, lawyers have been subjected to increased harassment. Not only have they been under the usual surveillance, some have been arrested and locked up in unknown hostels at sensitive times. Lawyers have been refused permission to speak in court in defence of their clients, and the judiciary has joined the police in pressuring lawyers not to voice complaints. These practices are not confined to political cases; a lawyer who merely put forward his client's argument that a confession was obtained under torture was jailed for 18 months.

These actions undermine Beijing's calls for greater social harmony and exacerbate the potential for civil unrest. The past year was marked by rising resentment of a minority who act as if it were above the law while the majority struggles to find ways to redress injustice. Harassing lawyers trying to help people seek justice will only stoke this discontent.

In the interests of stability and the modernisation of the country, public confidence in the courts must be restored and lawyers given freedom to act in the interests of clients so that justice is no longer beyond the ordinary citizen.