Human rights in China

Most prominent cases in China by lawyers now in custody

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2016, 5:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 August, 2016, 8:49am

Trials started this week of Chinese lawyers and legal rights activists who were detained in July last year and charged with subversion for their attempts to bring attention to rights abuses and demand government accountability.

They include lawyer Zhou Shifeng and three activists associated with his Fengrui Law Firm, among the best known in the field that is broadly known as “rights defending.” The firm has pursued many sensitive cases and represented outspoken critics of the ruling Communist Party. Others, including disbarred lawyer Li Heping, remain in detention, their legal status a continuing mystery.

The following is a look at some of the most prominent cases taken up by lawyers and activists now in custody:


Contaminated baby formula

In 2008, Fengrui represented victims in a contaminated infant formula scandal that the government sought to gloss over amid preparations to hold the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Around 300,000 children became ill and six died from kidney failure caused by the adulteration of formula with the chemical melamine. Fengrui represented victims’ families in cases against Sanlu Group, the maker of the formula and one of China’s biggest dairy companies. The firm’s work drew exactly the sort of attention that the government was hoping to avoid, further undermining public confidence in food safety and the leadership’s commitment to candour and accountability.

Court refuses to accept first joint Sanlu lawsuit


Falun gong followers

Fengrui also represented members of the Falun Gong sect that the government has suppressed since banning it as an “evil cult” in 1999. Group leaders have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms and ordinary followers locked up as threats to social order. As recently as last year, one of Fengrui’s lawyers was beaten by court officers after he objected to being prevented from communicating with his Falun Gong clients. That lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, was also detained last year and charged with subversion of state power in January.

Five Hongkongers arrested for bomb hoax at Falun Gong event


Ai Weiwei

Outspoken artist, blogger, filmmaker and designer Ai Weiwei hired Fengrui in 2011, when he was slapped with a $2.4 million tax evasion suit that was widely seen as an attempt to intimidate him into silence on political issues. That followed Ai’s three-month detention without charges at a government guest house where he was under constant supervision and repeatedly interrogated. Ai lost the case and was largely confined to his Beijing compound before his passport was unexpectedly returned last year and he left for Europe. Despite his experience, Ai remains as outspoken as ever, frequently discussing his detention and the dark side of China’s burgeoning security state.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s refugee statement: 1,005 life jackets floating in Vienna palace pond


Ilham Tohti

Fengrui also represented Ilham Tohti, an outspoken scholar from the Uygur minority group who was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 on charges of fanning ethnic hatred, advocating violence and instigating terror through his classroom teaching and a website on Uygur issues. His appeal was rejected two months later at a hearing held inside a detention centre in the far western region of Xinjiang, in violation of normal judicial procedure, his lawyers said. The professor had long been a critic of China’s polices toward Uygurs and Xinjiang and his sentence was the most severe in a decade for illegal political speech.

Uygur scholar Ilham Tohti denies charges in separatism trial


Chen Guangcheng

Blind since childhood, Chen Guangcheng obtained a working knowledge of the law and embarked on a career of activism on behalf of the disabled and fellow villagers in Shandong province. In 2006, he was sentenced to four years and three months imprisonment after filing a class-action lawsuit against the local family planning bureau over forced abortions and other practices. Released in 2010, he was kept under house arrest but escaped in 2012, and made his way to the American Embassy in Beijing from where he and his family were allowed to leave for the United States. Chen filed complaints against officials in his province with the help of Li Heping, a lawyer whose license was revoked by the authorities and who is among those now detained with no word of a trial.

Blind activist Chen Guangcheng recounts thrilling escape from China in new autobiography


Gao Zhisheng

One of China’s best-known dissident lawyers, Gao Zhisheng emerged from years of solitary confinement and torture to release a memoir this year that sparked international criticism of Beijing. After representing unpopular causes such as Falun Gong and Christians worshipping outside the official church, Gao was given a suspended sentence for subversion in 2006, but was repeatedly detained for long periods and returned to prison in 2011. Since his release in 2014, he has been living under near-constant surveillance by Chinese authorities, while his family has been living in the United States since fleeing there in 2009. Li Heping had appealed to Beijing judicial authorities on Gao’s behalf after Gao’s license was revoked.

Misery endures for Chinese rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, ‘freed’ after three years in solitary confinement