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China: Government Must End Crackdown on Lawyers

(Aug. 25, 2006)

(Hong Kong, August 23, 2006) – Chinese lawyers who defend human rights and expose the absence of an independent judiciary are under increasing attack from state authorities, Human Rights Watch said today. The central government must respond to the recent spate of harassment, detentions, and physical attacks on human rights lawyers.

Human Rights Watch also urged the central government, which has so far failed to intervene on the lawyers' behalf, to state publicly that attacks against lawyers will not be tolerated, and to take immediate steps to ensure the effective protection of lawyers.

"It's unclear whether China's central authorities have ordered, condoned or ignored the recent attacks on lawyers," said Sophie Richardson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "But it's crystal clear that the government should uphold the law and stop this blatantly illegal persecution of lawyers."

Two of China's most prominent lawyers are currently facing prosecutions that seem to be politically motivated. Beijing lawyer Gao Zhisheng, an outspoken advocate of the rights of victims of government violations and abuse of power, was detained on August 15 on charges of alleged involvement in criminal activities. In 2005, authorities stripped Gao of his right to practice law.

On August 18, the trial of another legal activist, Chen Guangcheng, turned into a mockery of justice when his lawyers were physically assaulted and then forcibly detained by Public Security to prevent them from attending. The court, in Yinan county, Shandong province, has charged Chen with intent to damage public property and inciting others to join him to disrupt traffic (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/07/18/china13765.htm.)

Chen and Gao have faced months of harassment, intimidation, unlawful detentions and physical assaults because of their legal activism.

In a separate incident on August 18, Yang Zaixin, one of the lawyers who attempted to attend Chen's trial, was beaten. He was placed in detention at a local police station, then reportedly sent back to his home province of Guangxi on August 19. Yang has not yet returned home.

China has seen a sharp upswing of protests over the past few years, especially in rural areas, some of which have been violently put down by security forces. Although China's top leaders have acknowledged that many protests were fueled by local government abuses, and promised to enhance access to judicial remedies for aggrieved citizens, repressive tactics have continued unabated.

In the rare instances in which central authorities have acknowledged such cases, they have tended to blame rogue local officials for the problems. Yet few local officials have been prosecuted for wrongdoing. And ultimately it is the central government's responsibility to protect all people exercising their lawful rights. The recent crackdown on civil rights lawyers appears to be part of an effort by the central government to stymie challenges to its rule.

"The Chinese authorities can no longer have it both ways," said Richardson. "Beijing should either uphold the rule of law and tolerate legal challenges or drop this façade of commitment to legal reform. The actions against Chen, Gao and others make it difficult to believe that everyone in China is equal before the law."

Human Rights Watch said the pattern of abuses against lawyers contravened China's obligations under international law, as well as its stated commitment to the rule of law. China's constitution and numerous domestic laws protect all individuals against violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure discrimination, pressure or other arbitrary action as a consequence of legitimate exercise of their rights. In addition, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that everyone is entitled to a fair trial, as does the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China signed in 1998 but has not yet ratified.

Human Rights Watch called on the Chinese authorities to release Gao, declare a mistrial in Chen's case and ensure that lawyers are free of intimidation and interference as they carry out their professional duties; they are entitled to this protection under the United Nations Statement of the Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers.

"Chinese lawyers don't need special treatment, but the public needs them to work freely because of their essential role in the justice system," said Richardson. "If lawyers can't have justice, what are the hopes for ordinary citizens?"

For more information, please contact:

In Hong Kong, Nicholas Bequelin (English, French, Mandarin): +852-9805-9120

In New York, Sophie Richardson (English, Mandarin): +1-212-216-1257 (boxun.com)

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