More than 200 Chinese human rights lawyers and activists have been targeted by police in a nationwide crackdown which began on July 9th. On Wednesday, Amnesty International released a comprehensive list of the lawyers and activists detained or questioned by police since July 9th, which includes prominent human rights lawyers Li Heping and Sui Muqing. The raids, involving abductions, detentions, disappearances, summons, and searches have affected 231 lawyers and activists, with 26 lawyers and activists still missing or in police custody.
All the individuals missing since the crackdown began are well-known for their work on human rights cases. The authorities have targeted lawyers across the country including in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai.
“The authorities must end this assault against human rights lawyers. Such an unprecedented nationwide crackdown can only have been sanctioned from within the central government,” said William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International. “This coordinated attack on lawyers makes a mockery of President Xi Jinping’s claims to promote the rule of law. The authorities must immediately and unconditionally release all those detained solely for their work defending human rights.”
The alarm was first raised on July 9th when Wang Yu, a lawyer in Beijing, disappeared in the early hours, after sending friends a text message that her internet connection and power at her home had been cut off, according to Amnesty International. She then sent a text saying that people were trying to break into her home.
Later that morning, friends were unable to reach her and she was not at home when a group of activists went to check on her. Wang Yu’s husband Bao Longjun is also missing. Their 16-year-old son Bao Zhuoxuan was handed over to his aunt by police on 10 July.
Wang Yu has taken on many important human rights cases that the government has deemed “sensitive” in recent years, including the defence of Cao Shunli, the Jiansanjiang case, the defence of prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, the Fan Mugen forced eviction case.
At around 7:00 am on July 10th, lawyer Zhou Shifeng, director of the Fengrui Law Firm, was witnessed being taken away from his hotel room in Beijing with a black hood over his head by three unidentified people. The law firm’s financial director Wang Fang has not been heard from since he left his home to go to the office the same morning.
Also on July 10th, police officers visited the home of lawyer Sui Muqing in Guangdong province, southern China, according to his wife. Police then detained Sui Muqing on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”, although they did not provide details on a specific incident or evidence. Sui is now under residential surveillance.
Amnesty International calls on the authorities to disclose the whereabouts and legal status of all those detained and guarantee unrestricted access to their families and lawyers, as well as ensure those detained are not at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.
Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) says that the massive police operations are a serious affront to civil liberties: ‘’The deteriorating human rights conditions in China under President Xi Jinping have now reached a point of crisis. CHRD condemns the Chinese government’s assault on human rights lawyers as ‘national security’ threats, as claimed in state media, and demands the immediate and unconditional release of all individuals who are detained so far. CHRD is concerned that those who have disappeared into police custody are likely to be subjected to torture.’’
The large-scale operation began soon after China’s draconian National Security Law took effect – on July 1st, and one day after China angrily denounced the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as “unprofessional” following his criticism of the law. The High Commissioner described the law as “extraordinarily broad,” and said that “coupled with the vagueness of its terminology and definitions,” it “leaves the door wide open” for further restrictions on human rights and civil society in China. The concerted raids demonstrate how the new law can be put to use to legitimize and embolden massive countrywide security operations against any perceived threats to the government.
The new law has been criticized widely. “The definition of ‘national security’ under the law is virtually limitless. The law gives a blank cheque to the government to punish and monitor anyone it does not like – human rights activists, government critics and other opposition voices,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Asia.
“The law clearly has more to do with protecting the Communist Party’s control of the country than with national security. The leadership of the Party and its monopoly on political power is explicitly listed as being part of ‘national security’ in the law,” Bequelin added. “The government has long been using national security charges, such as ‘inciting subversion’, ‘separatism’ and ‘leaking state secrets’ to suppress and imprison actiivists and government critics. The expansive definition given by the law is likely to further this trend.”
According to CHRD, the coordinated police operations also demonstrate how authorities can put to use China’s draft Internet Security Law, which would legalize invasive and strict cyber-policing and authorize shutting off the Internet to entire regions for “security” purposes. Social media sites favored by rights activists and lawyers have been disrupted following the raids, with users inside China generally experiencing difficulties in logging into their accounts, according to reports gathered online. Many of the released lawyers and activists have indicated that that they were warned against posting messages online about the raids. The day the raid began, a massive DDOS (distributed denial of service) attack began on Telegram’s Asia-Pacific server, coordinated from East Asia. While it is unclear who is behind the attack, the timing of the DDOS attack and the police raids may prove not a mere coincidence.
CHRD says that from information disclosed by released lawyers and activists so far, it has become clear that the aim of the mass raid was to intimidate the lawyers into silence and force them to withdraw their support to lawyer Wang Yu and her law firm, Beijing Fengrui. Many of the detained or questioned lawyers signed an open letter to protest Wang Yu’s disappearance. Police seemed to have use the list of signatures as their “guide” to hunt down the lawyers and tried to intimidate them into submission.
Legal rights and procedural rights of the detained or disappeared lawyers have been trampled on by unrestrained police power, according to CHRD. The operations have so far been conducted in a manner more commonly used against violent criminal gangs, including using early morning break-ins, abductions, hoods to cover heads of those taken into custody, massive police presence, and state media smear campaigns to heighten the level of the seriousness of the “crimes” that the lawyers are accused of, with no presumption of innocence.
The rights group says that, the recent raid is likely intended as a stern warning to China’s embattled but increasingly unified human rights lawyers and activists. At the same time, the mass rounding up is a part of the overall suppression of civil society that has taken place under President Xi Jinping since he came to power over two years ago.
In 2014, Xi’s government detained or jailed the highest number of human rights lawyers in any single year since rights lawyers emerged in China a few decades ago. Human rights lawyers Ding Jiaxi, Pu Zhiqiang, Tang Jingling, Wang Yonghang and Xia Lin all remain behind bars. This year, authorities’ growing intolerance of outspoken lawyers protesting breaches of due process rights has led to constant clashes, many of which have turned violent. In the last three months, at least four lawyers were seriously injured in four separate violent incidents.
The dramatic crackdown on lawyers is also a measure of the government’s nervousness about their growing strength, an increasingly organized mutual support network within legal communities, and the lawyers’ rising prominence and influence in society, especially among disenfranchised groups that have been mistreated, including politically persecuted human rights defenders.
CHRD urges the Chinese government to unconditionally release all detained lawyers and others swept up in the raids; to end its reprisals against human rights lawyers for exercising their independence or protecting the judicial process from government interference; and to bring its National Security Law, the draft Internet Security Law, and the draft Overseas NGO Management Law into complete compliance with international human rights standards.
A concerted international campaign to release of the detained individuals will make a difference, says CHRD, noting that strong protests by government, international agencies and NGOs in March and April were followed by the release of five Chinese feminists and women’s rights activists. CHRD also urges that the US government puts the September visit by President Xi Jinping to Washington on hold until his government completely halts the massive police operations, releases all detainees and prisoners of conscience, and lift its extraordinary measures against freedom of expression, association and assembly.
It also calls on the US, EU and its member countries, and other like-minded governments speak up publicly to condemn China’s retaliation against human rights defenders, including lawyers, during high-level visits and their human rights dialogues with China. Finally, CHRD advocates that the UN General Assembly must hold China accountable for its breaches of its voluntary pledges and obligations as a member of the Human Rights Council (HRC), and its failure to implement Universal Periodical Review recommendations it “accepted,” in the coming months leading up to China’s likely bid in 2016 for membership in the HRC for the next three-year term (2017-19).