Join our Mailing List

"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

China: Rights Lawyers Face Disbarment Threats

June 1, 2008

Intimidation Overshadows Reforms to Law on Lawyers
For Immediate Release
Human Rights Watch
May 30, 2008

New York -- Two prominent Chinese lawyers who offered to represent
Tibetans face the loss of their professional licenses as part of a
recent drive to threaten lawyers and law firms, Human Rights Watch
said today. The government's unprecedented efforts to intimidate
firms into refusing politically sensitive cases reflects the
vulnerability of the legal profession, and overshadows the June 1,
2008, enactment of revisions to the Law on Lawyers, which is supposed
to establish new procedural protections for lawyers.

The Beijing Judicial Bureau has to date refused to renew the
professional licenses of Teng Biao and Jiang Tianyong, two lawyers
with distinguished records of defending civil and human rights cases.
The deadline for renewal is May 31. The move followed a weeks-long
delay by the bureau to complete the annual registration of more than
a dozen law firms, many of which employ lawyers who have been
involved in what the government deems to be "sensitive cases." Some
lawyers have privately denounced the bureau's actions as "large-scale
blackmail," designed to deter law firms from getting involved in
cases that may be embarrassing to the government.

"Beijing is trying to intimidate the legal profession by suspending
these two lawyers and threatening not to renew many licenses," said
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The
goals are to deter lawyers from representing human rights cases, and
to deter firms from employing lawyers who want those cases."

In early April, following the government's announcement that several
hundred Tibetans had been taken into custody for their role in the
March protests in Lhasa, a group of 18 prominent civil rights lawyers
issued an open letter offering to provide legal assistance to the
detainees. "As professional lawyers, we hope that the relevant
authorities will handle Tibetan detainees strictly in accordance with
the constitution, the laws and due process for criminal defendants,"
the letter said. "We hope that they will prevent coerced confessions,
respect judicial independence and show respect for the law."

The Ministry of Justice, which has authority over lawyers and bar
associations and controls their professional licenses through a
system of annual renewal, immediately responded by threatening the
letter's signatories and their respective law firms with disciplinary
sanctions and holding up the renewal of their professional licenses.
Beijing judicial authorities summoned individual lawyers and heads of
law firms, told them the Tibetan protesters were not "ordinary cases
but sensitive cases," and asked law firms to dissociate themselves
from the individual signatories or to terminate their employment.

Several law firms where notified in writing by the judicial
authorities why their registration was being delayed: "The lawyers
from your law firm are involved in representing some sensitive cases,
therefore, the annual inspection and registration of your firms will
be temporarily postponed," the notification said. A number of lawyers
were also warned by national security personnel against accepting
retainers from relatives of Tibetan defendants. The Beijing Bar
Association, which like other Chinese bar associations remains
controlled by the local judicial authorities, also warned heads of
law firms of possible disciplinary sanctions. The head of the Beijing
Bar also accused the lawyers of having provided support to the "Dalai
Lama clique."

In a second open letter published on May 24, a week before the
registration deadline, the signatories of the original appeal
explained the motives behind their offer to defend Tibetans, and
rejected the view that equated their offer of legal services with a
proof of support for Tibetan separatism ideas (which constitutes a
state security crime under Chinese law).

"To provide legal defense to criminal suspects and defendants is the
function of a lawyer. It is an important component of the rule of
law, and to defend them is not equivalent to agreeing to their
position or actions," the signatories wrote. "We could not imagine
that issuing this appeal would result in such tremendous pressure and
impact the yearly renewal of professional licenses."

The authors also stressed that deeming cases "politically sensitive"
and therefore denying due process conflicts with the rule of law:
"progress [towards the rule of law] lies precisely in these so-called
politically sensitive cases. The more openly they are handled, the
most visible the progress. As the world has its eyes on China,
hastily trying defendants without allowing them their choice of
counsel will only damage the image of legalism in China," they wrote.

In late April, under instructions by the party secretary of the
Tibetan Autonomous Region to proceed to "quick prosecutions and
sentencing," a court in Lhasa had summarily sentenced the only group
of Tibetan defendants known to have been prosecuted so far. The
defendants had been tried covertly in the preceding weeks without the
benefits of choosing their legal counsel
(http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/04/30/china18684.htm).

In addition, the June 1 revisions of the Law on Lawyers are being
gutted before they are promulgated, leaving the legal profession as
vulnerable as ever. The revisions, adopted in October 2007, were
initially designed to address the problem of widespread difficulties
met by lawyers when they try to exercise key procedural rights such
as meeting their clients in custody, gaining access to evidence and
court documents, or independently collecting material and testimonies
for the defense.

But the revisions fall far short of the expectations of the legal
profession, and of the minimum standards for justice prescribed under
international law, such as the UN's Basic Principles on the Role of
Lawyers, which China has endorsed. Bar associations still have
virtually no autonomy from the Ministry of Justice. A new clause that
lawyers' court statements not "endanger state security" limits their
immunity. And article 306 of the Criminal Law, which is frequently
used to prosecute lawyers in sensitive cases for perjury if their
clients or witnesses retract or alter statements collected by the
police or the prosecution, remains unchanged.

Chinese lawyers are also thwarted by law enforcement and judicial
institutions that deny the lawyers' rights. For example, the right to
access clients in detention, which was supposed to have been
significantly improved by removing a widely abused clause allowing
the police or the prosecution to deny client-attorney meetings "if
the case involves state secrets" has been effectively nullified by an
announcement by the Supreme People's Procuratorate (the public
prosecutor) that such restrictions will still be imposed, no matter
what the revised Law on Lawyers stipulates. On April 30, Zhang Geng,
deputy procurator general, told the state-run China Daily, "If the
suspect's request is refused, prosecutors must inform detention
centers of the refusal, and the suspect will not be allowed to meet a lawyer."

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented abuses of lawyers,
widespread violations of the right of the defense in legal
procedures, and a pattern of interference and political control
(http://hrw.org/reports/2008/china0408/), especially in cases viewed
as politically sensitive by the authorities.

"Chinese lawyers should be able to work without fear of interference
or retaliation," said Richardson. "Until the legal profession is
truly independent, legislative fixes will remain mostly cosmetic."

Human Rights Watch said that no lawyer should be denied renewal of
registration on the basis of the cases he has represented or is
representing, and called on the Chinese government to use the
occasion of the promulgation of the revised Law on Lawyers on June 1
to publicly guarantee that lawyers' annual registration would not be
subjected to political considerations or other arbitrary factors.

"Curbs on lawyers defeat the goal of justice, and only undermine
legal reforms," said Richardson. "This is a high price to pay for
short-term political expediency."

For more of Human Rights Watch's work on China, please visit:
http://hrw.org/doc?t=asia&c=china

For more information, please contact:
In Hong Kong, Nicholas Bequelin (English, French, Mandarin): +852-8198-1040
In Washington, DC, Sophie Richardson (English, Mandarin):
+1-202-612-4341; or +1-917-721-7473 (mobile)
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank