Beijing – The authorities are monitoring more closely lawyers who represent dissidents, or are involved in human rights cases, especially after Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010. For veteran lawyer Zhang Sizhi (pictured), these lawyers “are now considered an element of instability, standing on the opposite side of the government.”
In China, defence lawyers have been accused of subversion, disturbing the public peace or revealing state secrets. Zhang, 84, who defended Bao Tong, secretary to the late Zhao Ziyang when he was premier, and others told the South China Morning Post that things have deteriorated since the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when stability became the government’s top priority. Hence, all forms of public protest and dissent had to be crushed.
Since 2008, when Wang Shengjun was named chief justice of the Supreme People's Court and Wu Aiying took over the Ministry of Justice, controls over lawyers have become more extensive and systematic. The two newly appointed officials have become the enforcers of a new guiding philosophy for judicial work on the mainland, namely the doctrine of the "Three Supremes", which is to serve “the interests of the party, the people and the law".
Beginning in 2009, harassment and intimidation of rights lawyers have become commonplace. News of rights lawyers being beaten by "unidentified men" and kept away in "unknown locations" when trying to meet clients in sensitive cases is frequent; surveillance of phones and movement, covert and otherwise, is routine. Some lawyers have resorted to living out of backpacks, moving from one friend's home to another because of police harassment or the fear of harassment.
In April, rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who was given a suspended three-year sentence for subversion in 2006 for defending Falun Gong practitioners and other rights cases, said he was going to give up his "abnormal" life. He apologised to supporters for giving up activism, but said that his family was no longer safe from retaliation.
In other cases, the authorities got at lawyers by not renewing their licence to practice, or by making life difficult for their law firms.
In April, Tang Jitian was permanently debarred for defending a Falun Gong member. Later, he found that the lock to his door was glued. When a friend asked a locksmith to open it, police accused the friend of being a thief. They handed over the new keys to the landlord, who forced Tang to move out.
Tang was one of the lawyers forcefully taken away from the capital by police in the week leading up to this month's Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway.
Meanwhile, difficulties in meeting clients, obtaining documents from prosecutors and even speaking in court—all part of the intrinsic work of a defence lawyer as guaranteed under mainland laws—continue in cases considered sensitive.
The list of lawyers affected by the government crackdown is long. Pu Zhiqiang represented Tan Zuoren, an activist fighting for justice in relation to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Tan was sentenced to five years in jail on subversion charges after an appeal hearing that lasted 12 minutes, at which Pu was barred from speaking. Pu was put under house arrest for three days after 8 October, the day that the Nobel Peace Prize was announced.
Li Fangping and Peng Jian defended Zhao Lianhai, a man convicted on subversion charges for representing children poisoned by melamine-tainted milk.
Both lawyers have been interrogated, threatened, placed under police surveillance as well as told not to talk to the media. Eventually, their client, without meeting them, revoked their mandate in a statement given to police.
Beijing lawyer Li Zhuang was jailed for 18 months on charges of fabricating evidence and coaching a defendant after he argued that the confession of suspected triad boss Gong Gangmo had been obtained through torture.
Another Beijing lawyer, Zhu Mingyong, defended Fan Qihang, Gong Gangmo’s co-defendant. In July, he posted online a secretly taped interview he had with his client in his detention centre, hoping to have the man’s death sentence overturned. In the video, Fan shows fresh torture wounds. Instead, Zhu's postings online were immediately removed, and Fan was executed soon after.
Zhang Sizhi, who spent 15 years in re-education-through-labour centres during the Cultural Revolution, said he has mentally prepared himself for the possibility of being thrown in jail ever since taking up defence work. However, he wonders if lawyers are dealt with in this way, how are ordinary people treated?