Today, we mark China Human Rights Lawyers Day, in remembrance of the Chinese government’s roundup of over 300 human rights lawyers and legal assistants in the days following July 9, 2015, in what is known as the ‘709 crackdown’. UN experts are dismayed that ‘the profession of human rights lawyer has been effectively criminalised in China.’
Human rights lawyers are a cornerstone of China’s human rights movement. From Uyghurs, Tibetans and Hong Kongers, to religious minorities, LGBTQI and feminist advocates, journalists, and political dissidents: human rights lawyers defend the full spectrum of civil society. They accompany and empower the most vulnerable against land evictions, discrimination, health scandals, or extra-legal detention. They embody the promise of rule of law and hold the government accountable to its commitments under China’s constitution, laws, and the international human rights treaties it has ratified. They ensure that no one is left behind.
Today, we call for urgent global attention to the Chinese government’s new wave of repression against human rights lawyers unfolding over the past three months.
On April 10, Ding Jiaxi and Xu Zhiyong were sentenced to 12 and 14 years in prison and 3 and 4 years’ deprivation of political rights respectively, on grounds of ‘subversion of State power,’ prompting grave concerns by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Both attended a private gathering in the coastal city of Xiamen in December 2019 to discuss the future of civil society in China. Xu’s partner, feminist activist Li Qiaochu, was recently tried behind closed doors for ‘inciting subversion of State power’, and her lawyer was not permitted to question witnesses or review evidence. Li has also been denied access to adequate healthcare despite severe mental health issues in custody.
Another Xiamen gathering attendee, lawyer Chang Weiping, was sentenced to three and half years in prison on similar charges on June 8. The three lawyers had previously been forcibly disappeared under ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location’ (RSDL), a criminal procedure systematically used against human rights lawyers and defenders, tantamount to enforced disappearance and torture according to UN experts.
On April 14, lawyer Yu Wensheng and his wife Xu Yan, were detained on their way to attend a meeting at the Delegation of the European Union in Beijing. Both have since been formally arrested, Yu for ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble,’ Xu for ‘inciting subversion of State power’. Yu left prison in March 2022 upon completion of a first four-year sentence on national security grounds, prompting concerns that he may now face a harsher sentence. He is the recipient of the 2021 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, and the 2019 Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law.
We strongly condemn the Chinese government’s abuse of national security, in law and practice, to target human rights lawyers and activists, as documented by UN experts. The authorities make systematic use of national security crimes under China’s Criminal Law, in particular ‘subversion of State power’ or ‘inciting subversion’ (Article 105) that carry lengthy prison sentences. According to UN human rights experts, China’s Criminal Procedure Law, including Articles 39 and 85, ‘provides for explicit exemptions and restrictions to [legal provisions guaranteeing due process] for national security crimes, such as notification of family members of arrest within 24 hours, or access to a lawyer within 48 hours.’ UN experts have called on China to repeal Article 105 of the Criminal Law, and legal provisions allowing for RSDL. In 2015, the UN Committee Against Torture called on China to repeal restrictions to the right to counsel and to family notification on national security grounds.
We are further concerned that the Hong Kong authorities are following a similar path since the imposition of the National Security Law. Prominent lawyers Chow Hang-tung, Albert Ho and Margaret Ng are currently awaiting trial on a range of national security crimes, for their human rights work. UN experts have recently called for Chow Hang-tung’s release.
We remain deeply concerned at the Chinese government’s increasing use of exit bans to impede human rights lawyers and activists from leaving the country, sometimes to visit a critically ill relative. On June 9, lawyer Li Heping and his family were intercepted by border police at Chengdu’s international airport. Similarly to activist Guo Feixiong and other cases over the past years, the authorities considered Li and his family’s planned travel to ‘endanger national security.’ In May 2021, lawyer Tang Jitian was prevented by authorities from visiting his daughter on life support in Tokyo. He was released in January 2023 after being forcibly disappeared for 398 days following an attempt to observe Human Rights Day at the Delegation of the European Union in Beijing in 2021.
We are alarmed at the severe harassment against released human rights lawyers and their relatives, including children. Li Heping and three other lawyers have reported that State Security agents, or unidentified individuals acting on their behalf, regularly intimidate and threaten family members, including elderly parents, and hinder their children’s access to education. Over the past two months, lawyer Wang Quanzhang and his family have been forced to move 13 times in Beijing. The family has also suffered from constant harassment and threats at their doors, as well as electricity and gas cuts. Lawyer Bao Longjun has been prevented from leaving his home multiple times by unidentified individuals blocking his door. Lawyer Zhou Shifeng, who was arrested as part of the ‘709 crackdown’ in 2015 and was released after completing his seven-year prison sentence in November 2022, has reported leaving Beijing in May in relation to increasing pressure and surveillance by State authorities.
We also urge greater attention to the Chinese government’s disbarment of human rights lawyers. At least 30 human rights lawyers have seen their practising license suspended or revoked by the authorities since 2017. Since 2016, administrative measures have criminalised lawyers ‘using the Internet or media to express dissatisfaction with the Party or the government’, joining ‘sit-ins, holding banners, shouting slogans, expressing solidarity’ and other acts in exercise of their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. Similar rules have tightened ideological control of law firms, with at least three penalised over the same period.
Detained human rights lawyers are constantly subject to physical and psychological torture and ill-treatment in pre-trial detention and prison. They are routinely denied contact with their relatives and access to medical care, despite critical health issues. The government impedes family-appointed lawyers from accessing court documents and representing victims, instead imposing government-appointed lawyers whose identities are not disclosed or refuse to communicate with relatives. Detained lawyers are often convicted during sham closed-door trials, without notification to families nor disclosure of court verdicts for prolonged periods.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has determined that China has a ‘systemic problem with arbitrary detention which amounts to a serious violation of international law’.
Over the years, sustained attention from the international community has contributed to the release and improvement of conditions for those detained, and brought lawyers and relatives vital moral support.
Against this new wave of repression, which has been known as the ‘709 crackdown 2.0’, we call on the international community to urge the Chinese government to:
- Put an end to its crackdown on human rights lawyers and defenders;
- Immediately and unconditionally release all those arbitrarily detained;
- Amend laws and regulations, including national security legislation, its Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure Law, to bring them into full compliance with international human rights standards; and meaningfully cooperate with the United Nations human rights bodies to that end.
Human rights organisations:
American Association of the International Commission of Jurists
Beijing Yirenping Center
Campaign for Uyghurs
China Aid Association
Chinese Democracy & Human Rights Alliance (CDHRA)
Chinese Human Rights Defenders
Committee to Support Chinese Lawyers
CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide)
Front Line Defenders
Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
Hong Kong Democracy Council
Hong Kong Watch
Human Rights in China
Human Rights Now
Human Rights Watch
International Campaign for Tibet
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
International Observatory for Lawyers in Danger (OIAD)
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
International Tibet Network
Lawyers for Lawyers
Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada
Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies
Solidarity China France
The Rights Practice
The 29 Principles
Tibet Justice Center
Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy
Uyghur Human Rights Project
Women’s Rights in China
World Federalist Movement/ Institute for Global Policy
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
World Uyghur Congress
Amsterdam Bar Association
Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE)
Geneva Bar Association
Warsaw Bar Association
Donald Clarke, George Washington University Law School
Edward Friedman, University of Wisconsin
Eva Pils, King’s College London
Jean-Philippe Béja, Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS)
Jerome Cohen, New York University School of Law
Marie Holzman, Université Paris VII
Martin S. Flaherty, Leitner Center for International Law and Justice
Michael C. Davis, Wilson Center
Rana Siu Inboden, University of Texas at Austin
Terence Halliday, American Bar Foundation & Australian National University
Tomoaki Ishii, Meiji University
Tomoko Ako (阿古智子), University of Tokyo
Chinese human rights defenders:
Anna Ruiqin Wang
Luo Shengchun Sophie, wife of Ding Jiaxi
Shi Minglei, wife of Cheng Yuan