A group of Hong Kong-based human rights defense lawyers issued an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping Friday, calling for the release of colleagues detained by government officials more than a year ago.
Known as the "709 Crackdown" of July 9, 2015, Beijing's massive roundup of human rights lawyers and activists resulted in hundreds of arrests, dozens of detentions and, according to a group of Western legal professionals who published related concerns in London's Guardian newspaper, at least 12 alleged disappearances.
Albert Ho, chairperson of the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, compiled grievances about the cases resulting from last year’s roundup—and China's legal environment in general—before having the document co-signed by 20 bar and lawyers' associations, 10 prominent law scholars and more than 30 practicing attorneys, many of whom are also based in Hong Kong.
Flanked by supporters, Ho mailed the letter to President Xi from Hong Kong's General Post Office Friday.
On Thursday, Cheng Hai, a well-known human rights defense lawyer in Beijing, circulated a proposal calling for fellow rights lawyers to fight the same repressive government tactics. Speaking with VOA's Mandarin Service Friday, Cheng said the 23 legal professionals and rights advocates still jailed in Beijing—9 of whom are themselves human rights lawyers—have been systematically denied access to family-appointed defenders. These defense attorneys, Cheng explained, are typically dismissed from the case by Beijing court officials, or sometimes reassigned to other cases before ever meeting with their jailed clients.
Cheng told VOA he knew of one detainee who, only after being released on bail, learned his family had hired lawyers to represent him and his fellow detainees. Currently detained rights lawyers such as Zhou Shifeng, Li Heping and Wang Yu, Cheng said, likely aren't even aware that their families, too, have at least attempted to secure defense teams.
"Hiding this information from the detained would mislead them to think their families would not or could not hire a lawyer for them," said Cheng, adding it is illegal for court-appointed lawyers to accept any new case if the accused still have family-appointed lawyers at their disposal. As such, he explained, state-appointed defenders who have chosen to take on these cases are themselves now in violation of the law.
According to Ho, who communicated with VOA's Mandarin Service via email, these many procedural shortfalls in China's judicial system pose a threat to activists and ordinary citizens alike.
"In the face of democracy and rule of law, any abuse of public power that blemishes procedural justice should not be taken for granted and tolerated," Ho told VOA. "In China, where ... the rule of law is in shortage, the rights lawyers are no doubt the minority in the 300,000-strong legal community. But it is exactly this small group of lawyers who dare stand up to the authorities and expose social injustice through their professional work. For the rights lawyers and rights defenders in particular, any one single case of suppression and injustice is too many."
In the open letter to President Xi, Ho and the signatories—who are not coordinating efforts with the Beijing-based Cheng, although they are addressing the same problems—lambaste China's prolonged pre-prosecution detentions, which are described as gross violations of both constitutional and national law, along with international conventions on human rights, and condemn the country's entire legal system as defective.
Since the July 2015 crackdown, several detainees have been brought to state-media news outlets for televised "confessions" of wrongdoing before being publicly indicted.
Friday’s open letter to President Xi formally calls for the release of all lawyers and other unlawfully detained individuals; ensured access to counsel of one's own choosing; removal of all obstructions of civic rights; and assurances of adequate medical treatment and visitation rights for all detained parties.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Mandarin Service. Pete Cobus contributed reporting from Washington.