BEIJING – Leading human rights lawyers from Europe, North America and Australia have called on Chinese president Xi Jinping to end an unprecedented crackdown by his security forces that has seen hundreds of attorneys and their relatives intimidated, interrogated, detained and forcibly disappeared.
A government offensive against China’s “weiquan” or “rights defence” movement began on 9 July last year when police launched a sweeping round up of respected civil rights lawyers including Wang Yu, Wang Quanzhang and Zhou Shifeng.
Last week it emerged that some of the crackdown’s targets – who have been held in secret detention for six months – are now facing political subversion charges meaning they could potentially be jailed for life.
Others, including Christian lawyer Li Heping, are still missing.
Writing in the Guardian, the group – which includes former French justice minister Robert Badinter as well as top British human rights lawyers such as Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Michael Mansfield QC and Clive Stafford Smith – urged Xi to prove China was a “respected global superpower” by freeing the lawyers.
“[We] write to express our deep concern about the scores of lawyers detained or intimidated in China,” they wrote.
“None [of the 12 lawyers still being held] have so far been allowed access to counsel, friends or family, and they are effectively disappeared. In some cases there is good reason to fear that they were put under pressure to ‘dismiss’ their previously appointed lawyers. Some are not known to be suspected of any crime at all; and in the additional case of lawyer Li Heping, the Chinese government has so far declined to admit that he is being held at all.”
The signatories – who also include the president of the council of bars and law societies of Europe, Michel Benichou, leading Australian civil rights lawyer, Elizabeth Evatt, and the former UN rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak – urged China to release the lawyers from custody in order to “vindicate its claim to be a responsible stakeholder in the international community”.
The direct appeal to Xi Jinping comes after it emerged that authorities intended to bring political subversion charges against the detained lawyers that will not only end their careers but could also see them sentenced to life in prison.
Experts described that decision as a severe escalation in the crackdown that was intended to further ratchet up the pressure on Communist party critics and independent civil society.
Last week Beijing also admitted it was holding a Swedish activist, Peter Dahlin, whose group had worked with Chinese human rights lawyers. Dahlin was detained in early January on suspicion of endangering state security and China’s government-controlled media has since accused him of “making trouble in China”.
In their letter in the Guardian, the lawyers said they feared those attorneys that remained in custody were “at high risk of torture or other cruel and inhuman treatment”. Others had “effectively disappeared” after being denied visits by friends, relatives or lawyers.
They added: “[T]he state-controlled Chinese media have in a series of broadcasts denounced a number of detained ‘suspects’ as members of a crime syndicate engaging in ‘rights-defence-style trouble-making’, and paraded some of those detained ‘confessing’ to wrongdoing before they have even been publicly indicted.”
Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based human rights expert, said that, under Xi, Chinese human rights lawyers were increasingly resigned to be seen as enemies of the state.
“A lot of them are trying simply to survive under those conditions, trying to operate as well as they can, because at this point things have gotten so bad for them that they have stopped being afraid of what might happen to them next.”