Freedom House Condemns Chinese Crackdown on Human Rights Lawyers

Washington

Freedom House calls on the Chinese government to reverse its recent campaign against human rights lawyers and allow them to carry out their work without intimidation or interference.

On Friday, the government shut down the Open Constitution Initiative, a group of lawyers known for defending the victims of last year's tainted milk scandal and for commissioning a report that criticized the government's policies in Tibet. Authorities confiscated computers and questioned employees of the center. The Beijing tax bureau also fined the group $200,000, saying it had not paid its taxes, a charge the group denies.

"The Chinese government is intensifying efforts to silence human rights lawyers and other independent actors ahead of the 60th anniversary of Communist Party rule in October," said Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director. "This campaign will leave China's most vulnerable citizens with no legal recourse and may increase social tensions across the country."

In another action, the government last week revoked the licenses of 53 lawyers, many of whom were known for their politically-sensitive work defending ethnic and religious minorities. The Bureau for Legal Affairs in Beijing also warned lawyers to avoid taking cases in Xinjiang, following the country's worst ethnic violence in decades. Authorities are reportedly rounding up hundreds of people in the western province, many of whom are ethnic Uighur men, vowing harsh punishment including execution. 

Prominent human rights lawyers and their families have faced increasing harassment in China in recent years. In February, security forces abducted prominent attorney and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Gao Zhisheng and have yet to reveal his whereabouts. In another case, authorities abducted lawyer Teng Biao and later refused to renew his law license. Others have been assaulted, threatened or fired from their law firms.

"If the Chinese government is serious about the rule of law, then it will immediately release Gao Zhisheng, reinstate the disbarred lawyers and allow OCI to operate freely," said Windsor. 

The Chinese Communist Party controls the judiciary and directs verdicts and sentences, particularly in politically-sensitive cases. Trials, which are often mere sentencing hearings, are frequently closed and few criminal defendants have access to counsel. Some 65 crimes—including nonviolent offenses—carry the death penalty in China, with human rights groups estimating that thousands are executed each year. Many suspects are simply denied their right to trial and are instead sent to "reeducation through labor" camps, secret jails and psychiatric wards. These extralegal detention facilities are estimated to hold between 300,000 and three million detainees, many of them political or religious dissidents.

China is ranked Not Free in the 2009 edition of Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties, and in the 2009 version of Freedom of the Press.

To learn more about China, read:

Freedom in the World 2009: China
Freedom of the Press 2008: China
Undermining Democracy: China
Freedom of Association Under Threat: China

Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties in China since 1972.

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Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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