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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China's human rights lawyers face uphill struggle

May 17, 2010

BEIJING — Tang Jitian has had to move several times after authorities pressured his landlords. He hardly ever sees his wife and daughter. And he has now lost his livelihood for defending the Falungong.

The 41-year-old is one of a rising number of lawyers in China who have risked their jobs and even their families to fight for those whose rights have been violated, amid what activists say is a widespread official clampdown.

"The issue of human rights is not an abstract one. It exists in our lives in a big way. But in the minds of many officials, it is considered insignificant," Tang, a slight but jovial man, told AFP.

He and colleague Liu Wei have had their licences revoked for "disrupting court order", after they defended a member of the spiritual movement Falungong, which is banned in China, in April last year.

They say they walked out of court due to constant interruption of their defence by the judge.

Liu, who with Tang spoke to AFP in a Beijing cafe before their licences were pulled, said defending her clients was sometimes a heart-wrenching task.

"Their relatives really suffer from being separated. And you hope that through your efforts they will be reunited," she said.

"But that's very hard to achieve, and although I don't feel I've failed, I do get this feeling of helplessness."

Tang and Liu, who is in her 30s, are the latest attorneys to face government pressure in China for their sensitive work, often involving those the Communist authorities would prefer remained silent.

Prominent lawyer Gao Zhisheng -- who also defended Falungong members -- vanished for more than a year after his family fled to the United States over his daughter's attempted suicides, triggered when she was blocked from school.

He resurfaced in March under what was believed to be close police supervision, and said he had decided to abandon activism, but has since again disappeared from public view.

In July 2009, a legal research centre focused on human rights was shut down, and the Beijing Justice Bureau suspended the licences of 53 lawyers.

In the far-western region of Xinjiang, authorities set restrictions on lawyers taking up cases related to the 2009 protests in Urumqi, according to the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCC).

Legal activists also complain that new rules coming into force in June that stipulate what lawyers and their firms can be punished for are vague and could lead to arbitrary disciplinary measures.

"If lawyers are suppressed further, what other channels will the petitioners, bereaved victims, workers, seek?" asked CHRLCC executive secretary Patrick Poon.

"If the government is serious in promoting the rule of law, they should stop harassing the lawyers -- otherwise we can foresee more and more unrest."

Tang became a rights lawyer in 2007 -- a complete turnaround from a stint as a state prosecutor in the northeastern province of Jilin, a job that gave him direct inside knowledge of the Chinese legal system.

"During the law enforcement process, different people received different treatment," he said.

"If you didn't have connections, many of your rights were ignored and if you did, then they had a reason to give a lighter sentence or let you walk free. That conflicted with my belief that law enforcement is fair and equal for all."

He moved to Beijing, where he defended Falungong practitioners, those displaced from their land and Hepatitis B carriers who suffered discrimination.

Tang was detained once last year on the June 4 anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square -- an incident that weighed heavily on his 14-year-old daughter, who still lives in Jilin with his wife.

"In her eyes, police are right, so she thinks I'm doing bad things, she frequently opposes me," he said, adding authorities had in the past set up video cameras outside their house in Jilin, filming through the windows.

China insists that attorneys are free to work as they please.

"Chinese citizens enjoy their lawful rights and interests, which are also guaranteed by the laws and the Constitution," foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said last week.

"Chinese judicial authorities also perform their duty according to law," she added.

In the past few years, the number of rights lawyers in China has soared -- from about 10 in 2007 to around 100 today in Beijing alone, according to Poon.

"It's not something that the Chinese government wants to see, but it's encouraging for civil society in China," he said.

"If they continue to remind the courts and the government that they should follow Chinese laws and the international laws they subscribe to, they should be able to help their clients seek justice or help themselves."

Tang said more Chinese people needed to be aware of their legal rights for any improvement to take place.

"There are already good laws out there, so let them be applied to everyone," he said.

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