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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Assistant to pioneering Chinese rights lawyer 'disappears'

August 24, 2009

August 22, 2009

Office worker for Xu Zhiyong, who himself faces
trial for tax evasion, has not been seen for three weeks

Almost no one in China has heard of Zhuang Lu,
which is hardly surprising. Plainly dressed and
introverted, the 27-year-old office assistant
completed her mundane daily tasks -- booking
tickets, paying bills -- with minimum fuss. Then,
three weeks ago, she disappeared.

Family and colleagues believe she is being held
in a detention house in Beijing. Like her boss Xu
Zhiyong, a prominent human rights lawyer who has
fought a string of high-profile cases, she was
taken from her home at dawn on 29 July by
security officials. But unlike Xu's detention,
which has made headlines internationally, her
disappearance has gone unnoticed outside her immediate circle.

"Information about her has always been out. But
because the main focus has been on Xu, not many
people have noticed her case," said their colleague Yang Huawei.

Xu -- who was formally arrested for tax evasion
this week -- is well known for his tenacious
pursuit of sensitive cases such as deaths in
custody. Shortly before his disappearance he was
featured in Chinese Esquire. He co-founded the
legal organisation Gongmeng, also known as the
Open Constitution Initiative, which has helped
the families of children made ill by tainted baby
milk powder and issued a report criticising the
handling of demonstrations in Tibetan areas.

In comparison, Zhuang's work at Gongmeng was
essential but inconspicuous - the administrative
grind without which no organisation can run. She
is "thin and small, plainly-dressed, introverted,
not talkative," wrote Teng Biao, another of the founders.

But though she appeared vulnerable to Teng, "one
thing proved that she was not weak and maybe that
is the most shining thing she did [at] Gongmeng," he added.

"In 2008, when summer was replacing spring, she
was invited by police for a cup of tea. The
national security people asked her to report on
our work to them and told her that she would
benefit. But Zhuang Lu refused. She told us about
it. She had the courage and [they] must have been
very angry and we are not sure whether today's
'serious result' has anything to do with them or not."

In his blog posting -- since erased by censors --
he described how she wept when officials came to
shut the Gongmeng legal centre in mid-July.

"Such a gentle and honest girl was kidnapped by
Big Brother without any legal justification," he added.

Xu's case comes amid a crackdown on activist
lawyers. Zhuang's shows how others can be drawn into such investigations.

"I guess it is possible that they took her in the
hope of getting some testimony from her against Xu," Teng told the Guardian.

Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human
Rights Watch, describes that as "standard operating procedure".

"It is also, of course, a way of putting pressure
on Xu, because he is responsible not only for
himself. Police like to make threats about
consequences for relatives and people around
[detainees] and he doesn't have family," Bequelin added.

"This is scaring people who work for NGOs. They
are thinking it's not only the boss who can be
taken away; officials can also go for the 'small' people."

Zhuang and Xu were due to meet the tax bureau on
the day they disappeared. Gongmeng's problems
began when authorities slapped a 1.2m yuan
(£100,000) fine for unpaid taxes on it last
month. Its founders say it paid slightly late but
in full and points out that the penalty is five
times larger than the tax bill. Staff who tried
to pay off some of the fine after Xu's detention
were told they could not do so because he had not
signed papers to appoint them as legal representatives.

Xu has now been formally arrested, allowing him
access to lawyers, but Zhuang is still in limbo.
Staff at the detention centre where she is
thought to be held told the Guardian they were
too busy to speak when asked about her case.

Zhuang's father, who rushed to the capital when
he heard of her detention, has returned home to
southern China without authorising lawyers to act
for her. Now, like her colleagues, he waits anxiously for her return.
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