12 months after crackdown, Chinese rights lawyers call for release of detained colleagues
Campaign of intimidation failed to wipe out civil society, attorneys’ group says, but they admit unceasing pressure by authorities has left some colleagues too afraid to take on rights cases
Rights lawyers on the Chinese mainland vowed to remain united amid what they say is an escalating threat to their safety as they marked the first anniversary of a sweeping crackdown that targeted hundreds in their profession.
But some said the campaign had left some colleagues too afraid to take on rights cases.
The far-reaching and intense crackdown had been highly organised, said a joint statement titled “Anniversary of a shattered legal dream” and released by China Human Rights Lawyers Group – a platform set up in 2013 representing about 320.
“Today, the people shall witness how an occasional crackdown in the past is being replaced by constant high pressure [on social] management,” the statement said.
However, it said cracking down on human rights lawyers would not make the nation more peaceful or stable, and more lawyers had pledged to work together to call for the release of their colleagues.
The sweeping crackdown against mainland human rights lawyers, which began on July 9 last year with the detention of lawyer Wang Yu and her husband Bao Longjun, is widely known as the 709 crackdown.
Soon afterwards, Zhou Shifeng, the director of Wang’s law firm, Fengrui, and several of her colleagues, were also taken away, while more than 300 others have been investigated since then.
“This is the largest crackdown seen in China’s civil society since 1989,” Teng Biao, a mainland legal scholar, who is in exile, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post. “The impact of the crackdown is tremendous, but it failed to wipe out the unity and the spirit to defend China’s human rights and rule of law,” Teng said.
Critics say the sweeping crackdown was aimed at silencing advocates and activists and stifling the burgeoning rights defence movement since 2013.
They say it shows the authorities’ fear of the fast-growing civil society and their wariness of the crucial role played by an expanding community of rights lawyers in the grass-roots “rights defence” movement.
Wen Donghai, who is among a new generation of human rights lawyers, agreed to represent Wang after others refused following threats.
“The chilling effect of the 709 crackdown is contagious,” said Wen , a former traffic police officer. “Many lawyers chose to focus on commercial cases while others put sensitive cases on hold.”
“The secret police are no longer intimidating as fear has been lost with repeated interaction,” Wen said.
The sentiment was echoed by You Ming-lei, a Fuzhou-based legal assistant and the husband of Zhao Wei who has been released on bail this week after being arrested in the 709 crackdown.
“In the past, there were more individual high-profile rights lawyers working on cases on their own … Lawyers have been placed under greater pressure [after the crackdown], but this has fostered more united actions of rights lawyers to work together,” he said.
According to Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, the total number of people affected by the campaign amounts to at least 319 people.
As of early this month, 24 had been formally charged, including for subversion of state power, inciting subversion and provoking social disturbance.
Another 17, including legal assistant Zhao Wei, had been released on bail and 264 others freed after being harassed and temporarily detented, according to the group.
Teng said he expected those charged with state subversion, such as Wang and Zhou, would likely face long jail terms as authorities were determined to use their cases to intimidate others .
“I’m extremely pessimistic about their future and worried about their well-being. The cost of defending human rights ... will be much higher from now on, and we see only the most courageous and determined taking on these types of cases.”
Teng said he expected those charged with state subversion, such as Wang and Zhou were likely to face long terms of imprisonment as the authority was determined to use their punishments to set an example to intimidate other rights lawyers.
“I’m extremely pessimistic about their futures and worried about their well-being. The cost of defending human rights in China will be much higher from now on,and we see only the most courageous and determined taking on these types of cases.”
One such lawyer is Li Heping, a Christian and an employee of the Beijing Fengrui law firm, who has been officially charged with “subversion of state power”.
His wife Wang Qiaoling, said her husband was far from being a hero.
“He is simply a man who followed his natural instinct of wanting want to help others,” Wang said.
“He is not an instigator out to overthrow power, but rather a man who chose to assist the weak and poor, who are unable to cope on their own in the face of real helplessness.”