China has detained or questioned more than 100 human rights lawyers and activists in recent days, prompting an outpouring of criticism over a crackdown described as the country’s worst in two decades.
On Monday, the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group estimated that of the 114 human rights lawyers and activists from 18 provinces who had been summoned for questioning, at least 22 remain in custody. Many of those affected include the country’s most well-known human rights lawyers.
Mass detentions follow lawyer’s disappearance
In the early morning of July 9, lawyer Wang Yu, who gained fame as China’s first female human rights lawyer, was taken away from her home by police. Her whereabouts remain unknown.
Wang drew attention in recent years for defending Uighur economist Ilham Tothi, who is now serving a life sentence on separatism charges, and high-profile rights activist Cao Shunli, who died in police custody.
Shortly after Wang’s detention, more than 100 lawyers across China signed an open letter protesting her disappearance, according to the China Human Rights Lawyers concern group. Authorities later detained some of those who signed their names to the list, as well as her colleagues Zhou Shifeng and Liu Xiaoyuan from Beijing Fengrui Law Firm. That law firm was singled out by state-backed media Xinhua and People’s Daily, which claimed its rights lawyers and advocates had formed a “criminal platform.”
Xinhua said the firm had taken on more than 40 so-called “sensitive” cases since July 2012 which seriously disturbed the social order. Among those who were questioned was Ge Yongxi, a lawyer from Guangdong who has defended Christian pastors and anti-corruption activists. He was released late Saturday night after hours of questioning that made him realize it was his support for Wang Yu which drew the attention of authorities. He said the detention only made him more assured of his own convictions.
“I don’t believe this [crackdown] will cool down people’s attention to Wang Yu’s and Zhou Shifeng’s cases. The reason we’ve voiced our support behind Wang was to promote the rule of law by public security officers, who haven’t fully abided by the laws in many ways,” Ge said.
Mass arrests under national security law
Hong Kong lawmaker Albert Ho, who is also a lawyer, said the actions are aimed at trying to silence the legal community.
“We are very concerned about the situation and this is the most massive crackdown we’ve seen in this period,” he said.
Mo Shaoping, a prominent lawyer who defended China’s detained Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, called the crackdown ridiculous because many of the lawyers are working on cases in which China’s public security officers are the accused party.
“The arrest of lawyers by public security officers is like the defendants going after the plaintiffs in a criminal trial, which is not only unjust, but also a clear violation of the judiciary system,” he said.
Lawyer Ge said the authorities actions call into question President Xi Jinping’s public stance to promote the rule of law. He urged U.S. President Barack Obama to press Xi on China’s human rights record when they meet in September.
“If possibly, even economic countermeasures should be taken to urge the Chinese government to take a serious look into the issues,” Ge added.
Earlier this year, China unveiled a new “National Security Law” widely viewed as giving authorities sweeping new powers to suppress human rights by defining “national security” in broad and vague terms.
The U.S. State Department released a statement Monday expressing deep concern over the detentions and said the new law “is being used as a legal façade to commit human rights abuses.”
“We strongly urge China to respect the rights of all of its citizens and to release all those who have recently been detained for seeking to protect the rights of Chinese citizens,” the statement said.