Authorities in China’s southern Hunan province have revoked the licenses of two rights lawyers, adding their names to a growing list nationwide to face the same fate in recent months.
According to international rights groups, more than a dozen lawyers and several law firms have lost their rights to work and operate, and the actions mark a new wave in a crackdown on rights defenders that began nearly three years ago.
Many lawyers said the administrative penalties imposed by the country's judicial system have created a chilling effect on the local community of right defenders, who are not only deprived of their practice, but their livelihood as well.
During the weekend, the Hunan Justice Department held disciplinary hearings to disbar lawyers Wen Donghai and Yang Jinzhu.
The department did not release a complete account of its final decisions on the lawyers or answer any question when contacted by VOA, but directed inquires to the department's Weibo account.
The department’s statements posted online only gave a terse account of the proceedings. A statement on the website for the Hunan Justice Department said during Yang’s hearing on Sunday, the lawyer and investigators had fully presented their arguments.
Another statement alleged lawyer Wen and his supporters got into an argument with a man, whose identity was unclear before his hearing Saturday. Wen later called police and was taken down to a local precinct to lodge a complaint and ended up missing his hearing.
In its statement, the department ruled that Wen’s hearing was cut short as a result of his “unexcused absence” and no more hearings will be held to hear his arguments.
Wen said he has filed a complaint to have the justice department’s decision overturned, although he suspects his objection will not change anything.
In July 2015, China began a sweeping crackdown on rights lawyers that has seen more than 300 rights activists arrested, beaten, harassed or put under surveillance.
“This is an extension of the July 9 crackdown, aiming to hush the lawyers up so that they won’t be able to defend those whose rights are being violated,” Wen said.
Wen, formally a police officer, was the defense lawyer for three Guangzhou activists promoting non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. He’s also represented several Falun Gong practitioners and Wang Yu, who was targeted early in the sweeping crackdown began in 2015.
According to Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concerned Group, at least 17 human rights lawyers and three law firms have had their licenses revoked or invalidated over the past eight months for merely doing their jobs.
“To China, this group of lawyers has presented as a very imminent threat, challenging the legitimacy of the regime. So, that’s why they seek to crack down [on] these people individually and systemically. I think that’s very outrageous,” said the rights group’s chairman Albert Ho.
Ho urged the international society to continue to speak up. He also suggested Washington impose sanctions on top-ranking Chinese officials to hold them accountable for the policy to purge lawyers.
Wen said despite the suppression, many rights lawyers won’t cave in.
“Lawyers have obstructed the authorities’ bashing on the private sector in a fashion similar to the Cultural Revolution. They want lawyers to shut up,” Wen said.
“The 709 crackdown (July 9, 2015) has failed to do so. Hence, another wave of suppression has begun to mainly impose administrative penalties on rights lawyers, supplemented by criminal detention as both Yu Wensheng’s and Li Yuhan’s cases have shown,” he added.
Yu was the defense lawyer of Wang Quanzhang, a rights lawyer who has been held incommunicado since late 2015. Yu openly called for the impeachment of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and political reforms before last year’s once-in-five-year Communist Party congress.
Days after he was disbarred Yu was arrested in late January, he was formally charged with state subversion and disrupting public service in late April.
Yu’s wife, Xu Yan, who was also harassed and subpoenaed twice following Yu’s arrest, which she said has traumatized her and their 13-year-old son.
“He [my son] was deeply traumatized this time. In the past two months, he had to keep the nightstand lamp on in his sleep. He now comes home to only stay in his room alone with door shut,” Xu said.
“As a mother, I felt that he was deeply hurt after he bore witness to several brutal occasions [when Yu was arrested and Xu was subpoenaed for no reasons]” she said.
Since the crackdown began, the international community has strongly criticized China for its treatment of rights lawyers and their families. During a two-day visit in China last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Xu and Wang's wife Li Wezu, as well as Wang Yu and others to show her support.