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China unleashing new wave of repression against human rights lawyers: global response needed

In a joint statement, over 60 human rights organisations, bar associations, scholars and Chinese human rights activists in exile urge global attention to the Chinese government’s new wave of repression against human rights lawyers unfolding over the past three months.

Full statement here in English and Chinese. 声明全文的中文英文版本。

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.

As a result of this work, for many years and particularly since the roundup of over 300 human rights lawyers and legal assistants in the days following 9 July 2015 – an episode known as the 709 crackdown -, this profession has been ‘effectively criminalised in China,’ according to UN experts.

This year alone, Chinese authorities have passed harsh sentences on national security grounds of ‘subversion of State power’ against three lawyers who had attended a private gathering: Xu Zhiyong (14 years), Ding Jiaxi (12 years) and Chang Weiping (3.5 years). Xu’s partner, feminist activist Li Qiaochu was also recently put on trial behind closed doors, being denied both a lawyer and access to healthcare.

Previously, lawyer Yu Wensheng – recipient of the 2021 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders – and his wife Xu Yan had also been arrested on their way to the Delegation of the European Union in Beijing, over a year after Yu’s release.

China’s abuse of national security to target lawyers has been growingly mimicked in Hong Kong, where Chow Hang-tung and Albert Ho are awaiting trial under the territory’s overbroad National Security Law.

Beyond arrests, authorities are also increasingly using travel bans and enforced disappearances – including through a criminal procedure known as ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location’ (RSDL) – to intimidate and silence human rights lawyers. Lawyer Li Heping and his family were intercepted at Chengdu airport in June this year, while lawyer Tang Jitian was detained for 398 days for attempting to attend a Human Rights Day celebration in December 2021.

Released lawyers increasingly face disbarment, while their relatives, including underage children, are subjected to unrelenting harassment from the authorities. In recent months, Beijing-based lawyer Wang Quanzhang and his family have been forced to move 13 times, reporting constant threats and repeated cuts to their gas and electricity supply.

Human rights lawyers are one of the last avenues left to Chinese citizens seeking justice for the trampling of their most basic rights. Without sustained global pressure, the government will ramp up its campaign to imprison, disbar or silence these critical advocates for a more equal, just and rights-respecting China.'
Raphael Viana David, ISHR's China Programme Manager

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.

My husband Ding Jiaxi and his colleagues always fought for what's right, despite knowing they risked being disappeared, tortured, disbarred. Their bravery is only equalled by their moral commitment to defending the rights of the most vulnerable, enshrined in China's constitution and international treaties. Their sacrifice cannot be in vain: governments should stand with China's human rights lawyers.
Sophie Luo Shengchun, human rights activist and wife of Ding Jiaxi

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.’

Against this new wave of repression, which has been known as the ‘709 crackdown 2.0’, the 69 signatories 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.

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