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Rights Group Urges China to End Restrictions on Lawyers

A human rights group is urging China to repeal rules that prevent lawyers from defending clients in collective actions. As Roger Wilkison reports from Beijing, the report by Human Rights Watch says depriving protesters of access to legal recourse can only intensify China's rising social unrest.

Human Rights Watch is taking issue with a set of rules called "guiding opinions" that were issued by the government-controlled All-China Lawyers Association in March.

The rules require lawyers to submit to guidance by local judicial authorities and the lawyers' association whenever they accept cases that involve 10 or more plaintiffs seeking redress from government officials for land confiscations, forced relocation and other abuses of power.

Lawyers who take on such cases must get approval from at least three partners in their firm, and are warned to refrain from eliciting media coverage of their cases.

China's official news agency last week warned that increasing numbers of protests are a challenge to stability and to Communist Party rule.

Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch says China is taking the wrong approach to the problem by depriving people of legal help.

"Because unrest is rising, because people have very little access to justice, you will see more and more protests in the streets in China," Bequelin says. "And the government, instead of trying to address the root problems and trying to promote judicial solutions to disputes, is instead cracking down on lawyers, and this is very worrying."

Bequelin says lawyers representing protesters have become a target of government intimidation for taking on cases deemed sensitive.

"Take, for example, the case of farmers who have lost their land to unlawful actions by local governments," Bequelin says. "They try to go to court, but what happens is that the lawyer will have to defer to the very authorities that initially decided to confiscate the lands of these farmers. They will not be able to have a fair hearing, and it makes the entire legal system pointless."

The Chinese government has defended the rules, saying they are intended to protect lawyers and plaintiffs. But the Communist Party has also instructed officials to take action against lawyers or rights advocates judged to be undermining social stability.

Human Rights Watch says China will not have an effective legal system until it respects the independence of lawyers.