Chinese authorities have closed a legal research center in Beijing and revoked the licenses of more than 50 attorneys in what some observers says is a bid to exert greater control over human rights activists.
Officials from Beijing’s Civil Affairs Bureau arrived early Friday at the legal research center of the Open Constitution Initiative rights organization, according to the Radio Free Asia News service. The officials questioned employees about their work and confiscated computers from the center’s offices.
The legal center researches public welfare issues and offers legal aid in cases such as the recent sickening of children who drank milk contaminated by the industrial chemical melamine.
The action is the most recent in a series of attacks against human rights lawyers in China, according to the ChinaAid human rights group. ChinaAid’s president, Bob Fu, recently told a U.S. commission on China the license denials reveal an “utter disregard to rule of law by the largest regime in the world.”
“These human rights lawyers have been moving forward according to the proposal from the 17th [Chinese Communist Party] National Congress to ‘promote the spirit of rule of law’ and ‘realization of rule of law in various jobs of the state,'” Fu told the panel.
Besides the poisonous milk incident, the lawyers whose licenses have been revoked have defended citizens in cases involving abnormal deaths in custody, house churches and rights of migrant workers and ethnic minorities, Fu noted.
He asked: “Which of these cases should a government shrink from having represented by a professional lawyer? Does not rule of law necessitate the vulnerability to transparency?”
The legal research center was shut down two days after Beijing’s Tax Bureau fined the Open Constitution Initiative the equivalent of $200,000, claiming the group had not paid taxes, which the group denies.
Lu Jun, a member of another Beijing-based NGO, said authorities were making an example of the Open Constitution Initiative.
“We have discovered as we have been doing our job that the authorities neither trust nor like the NGOs, especially those that are independently operated,” Lu told Radio Free Asia. “The closure of the Open Constitution Initiative is purely a crackdown and retaliation with political motives. This is meant to send a warning message to similar independently run NGOs,” he said.
The Beijing Justice Bureau also posted a list of 53 local lawyers on its Web site last week, saying it had revoked their licenses for failing assessments by their firms or failing to register with the bureau.
One of the listed lawyers, Jiang Tianyong, said in an interview with RFA that he was never notified about the cancellation in person and learned about it only through the bureau’s public announcement. Jiang recently defended a Tibetan charged with concealing weapons in an area of China where anti-government protests occurred.
Another listed lawyer, Li Heping, said he was frustrated by the license revocation because the disbarred attorneys had been working hard to “safeguard the rule of law.”
“They truly embraced the rule of law, and they truly had a belief in the rule of law,” Li told Radio Free Asia. “If these lawyers are sacked, the message from authorities could be interpreted only as saying that our legal system is bogus: ‘Don’t ever trust us, or this kind of outcome could be your destiny.'”
An employee at the Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau Law Enforcement Unit declined to answer questions, saying he wasn’t authorized to comment.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both condemned the crackdown.
“There are only a tiny group of lawyers left in China who are brave enough to take the risk of representing victims of human rights violations,” said Roseann Rife, the group’s Asia-Pacific deputy director, in a statement. “A further crackdown against human rights lawyers is a major blow not only to these legal professionals but to the human rights defense movement in China.”
Human Rights Watch called the closure of the Open Constitution Initiative and the disbarment of the 53 Beijing lawyers “a sharp intensification of official efforts to silence China’s human rights defenders.”
“The attack on OCI marks a new low in the Chinese government’s campaign against human rights defenders,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “This is precisely the kind of organization whose work the government should value, as it helps ease grievances and minimize unrest.”
Fu also presented the United States commission a petition with more than 100,000 signatures representing concerned citizens in the U.S. and around the world who are asking for the immediate release of Gao Zhisheng, a Christian human rights attorney, who was kidnapped by Chinese security agents on Feb. 4, 2009. Gao, like many of the other attorneys targeted by the government, have been working with ChinaAid’s legal defense efforts for religious freedom cases.
ChinaAid encouraged concerned individuals and groups to contact Zhou Wenzhong, China’s ambassador to the United States, and ask that the Open Constitution Initiative legal center be re-opened and that the licenses of the 50 attorneys be returned. Zhou can be contacted at his Washington, D.C., office by calling 202-495-2000.
Adapted by Baptist Press staff from a Radio Free Asia News report and statements released by ChinaAid. Copyright 2009, SBC, Baptist Press, www.BPNews.net.