Protests over arbitrary detentions as China hosts global lawyers forum

Lily Kuo in Beijing
Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

As China hosts hundreds of lawyers from around the world, dozens of prominent Chinese rights lawyers remain detained, according to rights advocates who have criticised the event as “a mockery”.

On Tuesday China held the second day of the global lawyers forum, coinciding with human rights day, bringing more than 800 legal professionals including those from the International Bar Association, the International Association of Lawyers, and the Bar Council of England and Wales.

China’s justice minister, Fu Zhenghua, said it was “an opportunity for China to draw on global experience in developing the rule of law”, Xinhua news agency reported.

But as the forum got under way, at least one spouse of a detained lawyer was put under house arrest. Several rights groups have issued open letters decrying the event as a “cynical charade” intended to gloss over China’s ongoing crackdown on lawyers, from well-known human rights advocates to self-taught local, or “barefoot, lawyers” who help residents petition for their rights.

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“To this day, there are still human rights lawyers who are forcefully ‘disappeared’,” the China human rights lawyer concern group wrote in an open letter on Friday.

“Most endured torture during incarceration; some still suffer from psychological trauma because of the untold horrors they experienced while detained or jailed,” such as sleep deprivation, forced medication, and being forced to sit in a contraption known as the “tiger bench”.

Among those detained are four lawyers who have been declared “arbitrarily detained” by the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention, including Wang Quanzhang, who was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for subversion after a secret trial held on Boxing Day last year.

Wang’s defence lawyer, Yu Wensheng was also detained and tried in a closed door trial. On Monday his wife posted on Twitter that more than 10 police surrounded her apartment, preventing her from leaving. She had previously called on lawyers to ask about her husband’s whereabouts.

Others include Zhou Shifeng, the founder of the Beijing-based Fengrui law firm which helped expose China’s 2008 milk formula scandal, and Li Yuhan, detained in 2017 after she defended another prominent human rights lawyer caught in the 709 crackdown on more than 200 lawyers and activists. Since then lawyers involved in rights cases have also been stripped of their licences.

“Chinese judicial authorities hosting a global lawyers event while imprisoning and disbarring Chinese human rights lawyers makes a mockery of international cooperation on rule of law,” said Francis Eve, the deputy director of research at the NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders, which has been calling on the international organisations attending the event to pressure Chinese officials to release detained Chinese rights advocates.

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“It is being held over international human rights day, when bar associations should be standing up for the rights of lawyers, not helping the Chinese government try and whitewash its egregious human rights abuses.”

The Bar Council of England and Wales said in a statement before the event that it “repeats its calls to the Chinese authorities to release any lawyers arrested in the legitimate pursuit of their practice, which includes the right to advocate freely and fearlessly in the best interests of their lay clients”.

As the forum opened on Monday, the wife of prominent lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who disappeared more than two years ago, published an open letter to those in attendance.

“You have the responsibility and obligation to ask the Chinese government that invited you: ‘Is Gao Zhisheng alive?’

“Or else, why did you come? To enjoy the air tickets, the hotels and luxurious hospitality of the Chinese Communist party’s dictatorship … or to let the CCP use your status and reputation to once again proclaim the greatness of CCP rule at home and abroad?”