Appalled by campaign of intimidation against lawyers in China

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 July, 2016, 3:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 July, 2016, 11:27pm

A year ago today, China’s authorities began an unprecedented attack on the defenders of human rights in China.

In the 12 months that have followed, more than 300 lawyers and human rights activists have faced intimidation, harassment, arrest, detention and unlawful restrictions of their basic rights and professional functions. Some are reported to have been tortured. Many lawyers remain in detention, uncertain of what the future holds for them.

Although well-known for their peaceful and legitimate work, it appears that the Chinese government considers human rights lawyers to be a threat to the state.

In a country where conviction is a near certainty following arrest, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) is deeply concerned by the serious nature of the criminal charges facing some of those arrested, and joins the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in demanding the immediate and unconditional release of all lawyers detained since the start of the crackdown last year.

There have been many reports of sweeping arrests since July last year, in what can be understood as attempts to destroy the growing network of human rights lawyers and activists. One particularly chilling example is that of lawyer and pioneering human rights advocate Li Heping. He has not been seen since July 10, 2015.

The incommunicado nature of his presumed detention leaves him at high risk of torture or ill-treatment. His case, and that of many other lawyers, makes plain the claim that being a lawyer in China is a dangerous occupation.

Such attacks risk causing irreparable damage to the independence of the Chinese legal profession, and undermine the rule of law.

It is in this context that the IBAHRI, itself an autonomous and financially independent entity, highlights the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which states, “Governments shall ensure that lawyers (a) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference”.

That China fails to respect these international standards and the pivotal role of lawyers as guardians of the rule of law is alarming.

Conjecture concludes that these actions should be understood as part of a systematic plan to dim voices and collapse the space for democratic discourse – something that should be very worrying to us all.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, IBAHRI co-chair; Ambassador (retired) Hans Corell, IBAHRI co-chair