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Rights Lawyers In China Face Growing Threats
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Rights Lawyers In China Face Growing Threats

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Rights Lawyers In China Face Growing Threats

Rights Lawyers In China Face Growing Threats
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Lawyer Yan Yiming was beaten by three men with iron bars and a hammer i

Lawyer Yan Yiming is still recovering from injuries after he was beaten by three men with iron bars and a hammer in the conference room of his Shanghai law firm. Louisa Lim/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Louisa Lim/NPR
Lawyer Yan Yiming was beaten by three men with iron bars and a hammer

Lawyer Yan Yiming is still recovering from injuries after he was beaten by three men with iron bars and a hammer in the conference room of his Shanghai law firm.

Louisa Lim/NPR

A new report by Amnesty International says China has intensified its crackdown on activists and particularly lawyers. It says there has been a disregard of national laws, noting at least four cases this year in which lawyers were threatened with violence by the authorities.

Some fear the situation is deteriorating.

Lawyer Yan Yiming was called to his law firm's conference room in Shanghai to give advice to three men. When he turned around to write on a whiteboard, he was suddenly assaulted. The three men beat him with iron bars and a hammer.

During the April attack, one thought flashed through Yan's mind: "I've been a rights defender for 10 years, and many different people have threatened me many different times. Now, finally, those threats had become a reality," he says.

Yan staggered out the door, and his attackers ran away, leaving him with a broken right shoulder and a fractured left shoulder. The police acted quickly, and within a week had detained four people in connection with the attack.

So far, Yan doesn't know who ordered the attack or why. He has made many enemies over the years, through his work in environmental protection, defending shareholders and pushing for government transparency. He knew the risks.

"China is changing from a society ruled by men to one ruled by laws, but we're not even halfway yet. Rule of man is much stronger. Eight of the top 10 whistleblowers have been arrested. Those who fight corruption get caught," he says.

Critics: Court Leadership Stresses Party Over Law

Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University, says that the rule of law in China has suffered a setback following changes in the leadership of the Supreme People's Court.

"For 10 years, there was a movement to improve the professionalism of judges, to give them more scope to try to make independent decisions more frequently. Under the new leadership for the last year or more, that line seems to have been reversed. This is a shift in emphasis," Cohen says.

The new Supreme Court president, Wang Shengjun, is not a legal professional but a police and party administrator. He has introduced a doctrine known as the Three Supremes — which are, in order of importance, first the party, then the people and last, the law.

Lawyers say this doctrine leaves the legal system open to abuse: Corrupt officials could use the excuse of defending the interests of the party or the people to interfere to subvert the intent of the law. Cohen believes it sends a clear message from the top leadership.

"They don't want autonomous judges or courts, because you can't guarantee the will of the party will be implemented if judges aren't listening to the party but following the law," he says.

'Every Rights Lawyer Eventually Becomes A Rights Case'

One way of silencing vocal lawyers is to shut them down. Li Jinsong knows this well. His law firm, Yitong, had defended some of China's most high-profile dissidents. But it was closed down by the authorities for six months at the end of March, and its lawyers forced to hand in their licenses.

Authorities said that Yitong had illegally employed an unlicensed lawyer. But Li believes his firm was targeted after some Yitong lawyers campaigned for direct elections for the leadership of the Beijing Law Association. He says the action against his firm was a clear warning to other lawyers.

"This is a case of killing the monkey to scare the chickens. We've been extremely careful not to operate outside the law. Yet the authorities were able to abuse the law in order to destroy us — who are well-known inside and outside China — and that will have a huge effect on other law firms," he says.

Li, too, has been threatened, harassed and beaten. Three years ago, he and three other colleagues were brutally beaten as they traveled to a local court to defend another lawyer. The circumstances were suspicious, he says: No one but local court officials knew they would be traveling that day, and despite repeated calls, local police never came to investigate.

Li says that in today's China, rights lawyers are treated far worse than political dissidents.

"If I was a dissident, who every day cursed the Communist Party and [President] Hu Jintao, the type of punishment I'd get wouldn't be life-threatening. I wouldn't be beaten with iron bars. But if my defense of victimized groups hurts powerful officials or capitalists, they often use these tactics," Li says.

One of the country's best known rights lawyers, Gao Zhisheng, once stated: "Every rights lawyer eventually becomes a rights case." It is true in his case.

After being named by the Justice Ministry as one of China's top 10 lawyers in 2001, he began taking on the most politically sensitive cases. In 2006, he was found guilty of subversion, but released from prison. He has been missing since Feb. 4, when he was taken away by state security agents after news emerged that his wife and children had defected to the U.S.

Law, 'The Only Weapon We Have'

Despite this cautionary tale, Li says he is willing to sacrifice himself for the law.

"If China's legal system is a skyscraper, it should be 100 stories. But it's not finished, we've only built 30 or 40 stories. If we're standing high up in the building, and I get knocked to the ground and killed by corrupt officials and their friends, at least the 30 or 40 stories we've built will still exist," he says.

Yan, the lawyer who was attacked in the conference room, agrees: Maybe they will break your bones, put you in prison or even kill you, but someone has to take on that duty, he says, and I'm willing to do it.

And despite everything, both lawyers remain optimistic. The law is the only weapon we have, Gao Zhisheng, the missing lawyer, once said.

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