Chinese Authorities Appear to Detain 4 Human Rights Lawyers
Chris Buckley, New York Times
10 July 2015
HONG KONG — The police detained one of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers in Beijing on Friday, after three other rights lawyers who worked together disappeared in the capital within 24 hours, apparently caught in an expanding investigation focused on their firm, their colleagues and family members said.
The reasons for moves against the lawyers remained unclear. But it appeared to be another step in the Communist Party’s campaign to use criminal investigations to crush China’s “rights defense” movement, which has used litigation and advocacy to challenge party restrictions on expression, the legal system and political life, several lawyers and rights advocates said.
“We’re used to seeing lawyers detained at a courtroom, but this seems like it’s different,” said William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International in Hong Kong. “It looks like a large-scale, coordinated thing, rather than catch and release. It has the potential to be a lot more serious.”
The best known of the lawyers taken away was Li Heping, who was in his home on Friday morning when the police entered, searched the home, seized computers and documents, and took him away, his brother Li Chunfu said in a telephone interview, citing his brother’s wife, who was at home.
The officers were from Tianjin, a port city near Beijing, said Li Chunfu, who is also a lawyer. “They said it was about a criminal investigation, but they didn’t say what investigation, nothing else,” he said.
Three other lawyers and a paralegal working at a different practice, the Fengrui Law Firm, disappeared or were taken away by plainclothes officers either early Thursday or on Friday morning, according to Liu Xiaoyuan, a colleague at Fengrui. The apparent detentions were confirmed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, citing Mr. Liu and other rights lawyers. Mr. Nee of Amnesty International said that at least seven people from the firm were missing, probably detained, including members of the support staff.
Zhou Shifeng, another Beijing lawyer who like Mr. Li has taken up politically contentious cases, was led away from a hotel in eastern Beijing by three men on Friday morning, with his head hooded by clothing, Mr. Liu said.
“We’re fairly sure he was taken away by plainclothes police,” Mr. Liu said, citing the account of a person who was there. “But there’s been no notification, and his wife hasn’t heard anything. We’re all waiting.”
Hours before Mr. Zhou disappeared, he had exulted at the release of a client, Zhang Miao, a news assistant for a German weekly, who was freed on Thursday night after nine months in detention. Mr. Zhou had gone to the detention center to receive Ms. Zhang.
Wang Yu, a colleague of Mr. Zhou’s, disappeared from her home in Beijing in the early hours of Thursday, after sending friends a text message that her power and Internet connection had been shut off and, later, that people were trying to enter her home, Mr. Liu said. Last month, Xinhua, China’s main state-run news agency, condemned Ms. Wang in a commentary that called her a “hypocritical, bogus lawyer.”
Also taken from their homes by plainclothes officers on Friday morning were Li Shuyun, a probationary lawyer at the firm, and a paralegal, Liu Sixin, Mr. Liu said, citing Ms. Li’s sister and a phone call from the detained paralegal and the accounts of his relatives.
On Friday afternoon, the police also searched the Fengrui offices and took away at least three computers, Mr. Liu said. “Other people in the law firm have also been detained, but it’s hard to count, because some maybe are hiding and turned their phones off,” he added. “I’m also in danger and staying outside Beijing.”
The firm has dozens of lawyers, and its website features inspirational quotes from Nelson Mandela and the slogan “Equality, freedom, democracy, legality.”
The police have not confirmed that they are holding the four lawyers or the paralegal. But their supporters said they appeared to be the latest citizens detained for taking up politically contentious cases and causes that have riled the Communist Party. Since President Xi Jinping took power as party leader in November 2012, his government has enforced a sweeping crackdown on dissidents, rights advocates and lawyers who try to defend them.
The Fengrui Law Firm “provided a base to a number of human rights lawyers,” said Eva Pils, a law scholar at Kings College London who studies China’s rights defense lawyers. “There is a sense that to control this restive and growing group of human rights lawyers, they have to do something that goes beyond the level of repression that everybody has already gotten used to.”
Li Heping, who did not belong to the same firm as the others who disappeared, has acted as the lawyer for some of China’s most prominent dissidents and rights campaigners. One client was Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal advocate who escaped house arrest in his village in 2012, fled to the American Embassy in Beijing and eventually settled in the United States.
Mr. Liu said he was baffled by the apparent detention of his colleagues. But they may have been detained because their law firm had employed Wu Gan, a combative activist who used the Internet to publicize controversial cases, said Maya Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Mr. Wu used the online name The Butcher, and he was detained by the police in May and later charged with provoking disturbances and “inciting subversion of state power,” vague accusations that are often used against rights advocates.
“In China, especially these days, human rights lawyers face that risk always and everywhere,” said Li Chunfu, the brother of Li Heping. “They’re clear in their minds that there’s the chance of a government crackdown, and they often have their own lawyers lined up.”
Copyright 2015 New York Times
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