Human rights defenders pressure China over jailed lawyers

One year after crackdown, international lawyers’ groups sign letter and issue awards

Human rights defenders have stepped up their pressure on President Xi Jinping to release lawyers and activists still held exactly one year after the start of a crackdown on dissenting voices in China.

Over 200 human rights lawyers and activists were picked up during the dragnet known as the “709 Crackdown”. Two dozen are still in detention, including a number who could face life imprisonment after being charged with subversion of state power.

China decries foreign organisations commenting on its human rights record, seeing it as overseas interference in a domestic issue.

Since Mr Xi came to power in 2012, China has seen increased persecution of human rights lawyers and civil society reformers and growing curbs on social gatherings, as well as more stringent control of the media and the internet.


Open letter

“As legal practitioners from around the world, we support and embrace the universal values underpinning human rights and the rule of law, and we aim for the improvement of the situation for lawyers and human rights defenders and access to justice for all,” ran one open letter signed by over a dozen lawyers’ associations, including the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, the

Amsterdam Bar Association

, the Australian branch of the International Association of People’s Lawyers and the International Commission of Jurists.

“It is in this light that we wish to remind you of your continuous pledges, Mr President, to uphold the rule of law in China,” continued the letter, posted on the Facebook page of the Hong Kong group.

Meanwhile, the American Bar Association, or ABA, named one of the detained lawyers Wang Yu as the recipient of the newly created "ABA International Human Rights Award."

The influential lawyers’ group said Ms Wang was being recognised for her “substantial contributions in the areas of civil rights and civil liberties in China.”

“In honouring Wang Yu, we pay tribute to her steadfast commitment to doing this essential work in China.

"We recognise her important work to protect human rights and to advocate that the Chinese government respect the independence of the judiciary and the legal profession and observe fair trial and due process standards – all principles guaranteed under Chinese and international law and critical to sustaining progress toward rule of law," ABA president Paulette Brown said in a statement.

The German embassy in Beijing issued a statement saying "the situation of the persons affected by the crackdown remains an issue of grave concern" and it reissued a statement by the European Union which called on China to act with greater transparency.

Grateful to jailers

One person released was

Zhao Wei

, who was legal assistant to

Li Heping

of the Fengrui law firm, many of whose lawyers have been arrested. She issued a statement thanking the police for taking good care of her in custody – like a family – and criticising her former employer, remarks which appear suspicious to some of her colleagues and her family.

Jerome Cohen, a legal scholar and director of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University, said the rash of petitions, blogs, editorials and open letters was "encouraging".

“It is discouraging to realise how little impact all these efforts will have on Xi Jinping and his spear carriers or even on the Chinese people, most of whom are deprived of their right under China’s Constitution to know about such efforts,” he said.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing