New York Times: Police in China Want Rights Lawyer Prosecuted on Subversion Charge

The New York Times
By Chris Buckley June 13, 2016

■ Beijing — The Chinese police have recommended prosecution on a charge of subversion for Zhou Shifeng, a prominent lawyer whose arrest last yearformed the focus of a campaign to discredit and dissolve networks of rights-focused defense lawyers who challenged the government, one of his former colleagues said on Monday.

Nearly a year has passed since Mr. Zhou and other lawyers, legal associates and rights advocates were rounded up by the authorities, who accused them of abusing court proceedings and stirring up protests in a bid to win personal fame and discredit the Communist Party. About 25 remain in detention or missing, presumed detained, and their families and supporters have adamantly rejected the allegations, although they have had no access to the detainees.

Over the weekend, the police told Mr. Zhou’s family that they had recommended indictment on suspicion of “subverting state power,” said Liu Xiaoyuan, a former colleague of Mr. Zhou’s, citing word from Mr. Zhou’s family. Mr. Liu said the subversion charge was particularly serious and, if successfully prosecuted, could lead to a prison term of at least a decade.

Zhou Shifeng, a prominent lawyer whose arrest
last year formed the focus of a Chinese campaign
to discredit and dissolve networks of defense
lawyers who challenged the government. 

The charge suggested that under President Xi Jinping, the government would continue its intense drive to silence organizations and activists who even a few years ago survived in a margin of official tolerance, said Maya Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch.

“This kind of grave political crime, reserved for organizers of political parties in the past, is now used on a much wider range of civil society actors, showing how much space for activism has shrunk under Xi’s reign in just three years,” Ms. Wang said by email.

On Monday, the Chinese government also issued guidelines for reforming the legal profession, in a document that stressed demands for lawyers to be both honest professionals and loyal enforcers of the Communist Party’s policies.

“Always make adherence to the leadership of the Communist Party and support for socialist rule of law a fundamental requirement for serving as a lawyer,” said a summary of guidelines, issued by Xinhua, the official news agency.

Mr. Zhou led a law firm in Beijing that took on many contentious cases about legal rights, as well as conventional commercial work. One other lawyer at his firm, as well as an intern and an assistant, were also arrested on subversion charges in January.

Liberal critics of Mr. Xi and foreign officials have also raised worries that a recently passed law on foreign nongovernment organizations may be used to cut back the room for international groups to operate in China. Secretary of State John Kerry raised those concerns in meetings in Beijing last week.

Last week, prosecutors also revealed a trial date for Xia Lin, a prominent lawyer in Beijing whose clients included Ai Weiwei, the famed artist whose work often takes up politically-charged subjects. Mr. Xia would face trial on fraud charges in Beijing on Friday, Ding Xikui, one of his defense lawyers, said by telephone on Monday.

“He will maintain his innocence,” Mr. Ding said.

Mr. Xia was detained by the police in November 2014 and later charged with fraud over a loan. But his wife, Lin Ru, and other rights lawyers have said the charges are groundless and an attempt to silence Mr. Xia.

Now prosecutors have up to one and a half months to decide whether to take Mr. Zhou to court on the charge of subversion, Mr. Liu said. Chinese courts rarely find defendants innocent, especially in politically contentious cases.

“They could send it back to the public security organs for additional investigation, or they could initiate prosecution if they decide the facts are clear and the crime has been established,” Mr. Liu said in a telephone interview. “There is the possibility that they’ll send it back for more investigations; the case has already dragged on this long.”

But Mr. Liu said that it was unlikely that the police and prosecutors would decide to prosecute Mr. Zhou on a lesser charge and that sticking to the more serious one, subversion, would set an example for the other lawyers and activists under investigation.

Mr. Zhou and many other people detained in the crackdown last year are being held in Tianjin, a port city near Beijing. His court-appointed lawyer there, Yang Yufu, did not answer repeated phone calls on Monday.

Follow Chris Buckley on Twitter @ChuBailiang.

Adam Wu contributed research.

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