Friday, 5 August 2016

China's Campaign Against Lawyers

Zhou Shifeng at his trial in No. 2 Tianjin Intermediate People's Court
Rule of law is when the prosecution and defense each have access to legal representation and the judge is impartial until he or she hears the arguments for both sides.

But in China, or apparently in President Xi Jinping's version of rule of law, lawyers who try to launch class action lawsuits, particularly against the state are considered subversive.

That was the case of Zhou Shifeng, the former director of a Beijing law firm who was convicted of subversion and sentenced to seven years in jail. He pleaded guilty and even pledged not to appeal after a hearing that lasted less than three hours in Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People's Court yesterday.

Fengrui law firm represented Chen Guangcheng
Fengrui law firm was headed by Zhou and employed nearly 100 lawyers at its peak, handling mostly sensitive cases.

It represented victims of the melamine-contaminated milk formula scandal in 2008, dissident artist Ai Weiwei, blind legal rights activist Chen Guangcheng, rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, and Uygur academic Ilham Tohti.

It's an impressive line-up of clients from a western point of view, but in China it's only a matter of time before the state goes after you for representing these "troublemakers".

But every defendant needs legal representation, so who will give them a fighting chance? And for the melamine milk scandal, surely those families are entitled to fight for compensation and jail for those who sickened or killed their babies?

A baby receiving hospital care after drinking melamine milk
However this is China, and during the hearing, two witnesses claimed Zhou tried to use sensitive cases to foster public resentment of the Party and the government.

Prosecutors accused Zhou of "being influenced for a long time by the infiltration of anti-China forces and gradually developing the idea of overturning the country's current political system".

A prosecutor read out a written statement by Zhou in court that apparently said: "I have attracted the interest of foreign consulates and NGOs... Their ultimate goal is to overturn the leadership of the Communist Party."

Amnesty International said Zhou's conviction and that of rights advocate Zhai Yanmin an attempt by the central government to "silence anyone who raises legitimate questions about human rights and uses the legal system to seek redress".

Fengrui has also represented dissident artist Ai Weiwei
"This wave of trials against lawyers and activists is a political charade. Their fate was sealed before they stepped into the courtroom," said Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director for Amnesty International.

Civil society is crumbling, making it harder for anyone to have any kind of disagreement or ability to question what the government does.

Zhou has accepted his fate, but others cannot. How can China realize its dream of having a harmonious society when lawyers can't defend rule of law?

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