New York Times: Charges Against Chinese Rights Lawyers Draw Foreign Criticism

The New York Times
By Chris Buckley

Jan. 18, 2016

■ Beijing — The recent arrests of Chinese lawyers and their associates on subversion charges drew sharp condemnation from presidents of foreign bar associations, prominent lawyers and former judges in a letter issued on Monday. They said the charges were part of an “unprecedented crackdown” on Chinese advocates who take up contentious human rights cases.

“You have repeatedly stated that ‘China is a country ruled by law,’ ” reads the public letter, which is addressed to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping. “Yet the events just described appear entirely contrary to those commitments.”

The criticism was in response to a burst of Chinese police notices to families last week revealing the formal arrest of at least 10 lawyers, legal aides and activists accused of “subversion of state power” or the slightly lighter charge of “inciting subversion.” Gao Yue, an assistant to Li Heping — a civil rights lawyer who is still missing, apparently in custody — was arrested on charges of helping to destroy evidence.

The 20 signatories of the letter included David J. Scheffer, a former United States ambassador at large for war crimes issues; Robert Badinter, a former French minister of justice; Jean-Jacques Uettwiller, the president of the International Association of Lawyers; and Baroness Helena Kennedy, chairwoman of the British legal and human rights group Justice.

In a separate, milder comment in answer to questions about the subversion charges, Paulette Brown, the president of the American Bar Association, said by email that her association was “concerned about the situation and its implications.”

Chinese courts have used subversion charges to impose long prison sentences on political dissidents. Critics say that Mr. Xi’s government has betrayed its vows of a fairer legal system by using secretive detention and heavy criminal charges to silence lawyers who take on contentious human rights cases. Many of the lawyers were detained in a campaign that began in July that led to the detention of nearly 250 lawyers, law associates and activists. Most were released.

None of the arrested legal workers “have so far been allowed access to counsel, friends or family, and they are effectively disappeared,” said the letter from the lawyers and jurists to Mr. Xi.

“We fear that without legal representation of their own free choice or other legal protections, the persons above are at high risk of torture or other cruel and inhuman treatment.”

The criticism, even from prominent foreign jurists, is unlikely to persuade the Chinese government to drop the subversion charges. Under Mr. Xi, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has redoubled its warnings that the country’s stability is menaced by political subversion, including lawyers and activists who espouse ideas of unfettered human rights and rule of law.

Instead, the Chinese government and the state-run media have repeatedly accused such critics of meddling in the country’s legal affairs.

“It’s totally senseless to treat lawyers as an untouchable group,” said a commentary last week in Global Times, a widely read Chinese tabloid that has repeatedly faulted critics of the crackdown. “We’re confident that the great majority of lawyers abide by the law but can’t rule out that a small number have committed serious crimes.”

But Terence Halliday, a researcher with the American Bar Foundation in Chicago who has studied China’s criminal defense lawyers, said the subversion charges were a further betrayal of China’s international legal commitments.

“We’re reminding the Chinese government that a spotlight remains on its adherence to the U.N. conventions and other international norms that it has told the world that it abides by,” Mr. Halliday said. He said the American Bar Foundation, a research organization on legal issues, helped organize the letter, although it did not sign it.

“China is deviating further and further from those international standards and agreements,” he said. “These lawyers are defending rights in ways thoroughly familiar to rule-of-law societies across the world.”

The American Bar Association, which is separate from the foundation and is the biggest and most powerful representative body of American lawyers, has offered a less confrontational response to the arrests in China.

In August, William C. Hubbard, then the president of the association, issued a statement after the initial wave of detentions of lawyers. “The development of a just rule of law is a continuing struggle in every nation, including the United States,” he said.

In her latest emailed comment, the current president of the association, Ms. Brown, said:

“We remain concerned about the situation and its implications. The A.B.A. urges the Chinese government to comply with its own laws and polices to acknowledge the important role of lawyers in the administration of justice for all. Lawyers should be able to safely provide meaningful protections for defendants.”

The American Bar Association would “work through private and public channels” on the issue, she said.

But critics have said that the association’s reaction to the arrests in China has been too tepid and have urged it to join other legal associations in making a stronger criticism of the latest charges.

“As the Xi Jinping regime gets increasingly repressive, my own feeling grows stronger that the A.B.A. should speak out more forcefully,” Jerome A. Cohen, a lawyer and professor of law at New York University with long experience in China, said by email. The association’s training work in China may suffer, he acknowledged.

“For me it’s a close question,” said Professor Cohen, “but I think, on balance, because of the A.B.A.’s huge membership and prominence, it should take a much tougher stand than it has.”

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