The Plight of Human Rights: Intimidation and Detention of Lawyers in China

The Chinese government has a longstanding history of suppressing dissident activity, as seen through surveillance, censorship, and other means. Subsequently, these efforts extend to those aiming to eradicate repression and injustice, attacking not only the network of civil and social activism that arose in post-Mao China, but also human rights lawyers. Merely being employed in a law office which had once represented a dissident or claimed a governmental human rights violation was enough to be brought in for questioning by government officials and officers.

According to Beijing-based New York Times writer Alex Palmer, ‘Until 1979, the People’s Republic operated with virtually no criminal-justice system whatsoever: The Communist Party organized Soviet-style police and people’s courts to address petty crimes and local disputes, but their primary responsibility was to enforce absolute loyalty to the party.’ Eventually, economic reforms brought along reconfigurations of the legal system, shown particularly in the relative softening of strict ideological conformity in the 2000’s. These new domestic policies paved the way for a generation of outspoken human rights lawyers who were willing to challenge the government in ways that were never attempted by their predecessors. Unfortunately, this progress became a source of anxiety for the Party, and worries about lack of control and dissident uprising gave way to a governmental shift of leniency.

Though it has never been particularly easy to work and live as a human rights activist in China, pressure against these individuals increased ten-fold on July 9th, 2015, when the Chinese government launched more extreme efforts to suppress human rights lawyers. The “709 crackdown” on dissent was a widespread phenomenon, ultimately resulting in the temporary and forcible detainment, surveillance, travel banning, and arrests of more than 300 lawyers, law firm staff, activists, and family members. Many of the lawyers and activists faced threats of lifetime imprisonment, effectively disappearing for several months or even years, thanks to a provision of the Chinese criminal code, which allows law enforcement to carry out incommunicado detentions. In the aftermath of 709, many felt they had no choice but to abandon their legal careers, with remaining members of the community going underground and choosing to write about human rights cases only under a pseudonym.

Once they are detained, the human rights violations carried out by the Chinese government become even more of an urgent matter, with instances of torture and overall ill-treatment remaining routine in the case of detained dissidents. Lawyers released on bail have described the horrific extent of suffering, including beatings, lengthy interrogations, sleep and water deprivation, and in one case being ‘force-fed with medicines and chained for up to 24 hours a day.’ For certain activists and lawyers, even those who no longer practice law, the ordeal follows them long after serving their sentences, with similar infringements on personal rights being carried against them in the outside world.

Protest in San Francisco against the human rights violations brought about by the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Source: WikiMedia Commons.

One case in particular is that of Ni Yulan, a former housing rights lawyer best known for her defence of residents who were evicted to accommodate the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Yulan spent her career fighting for the rights of others, only to become a victim of torture and ill-treatment herself. So extreme is Yulan’s case that in the wake of filming the forced teardown of one of her clients’ homes in 2002, she was so brutally beaten by the police that she now lives confined to a wheelchair. Furthermore, she has been repeatedly and violently evicted, reporting instances in which both she and her husband were dragged from their home. She has also been barred from leaving the country by Chinese authorities and has had her passport continuously withheld.

The continuous and ruthless persecution of human rights lawyers is one that cannot go ignored. While many have been freed after months of wrongful detainment and torture, counter-efforts from NGOs and foreign governments alike to remedy this injustice act alone as the government largely remains unscathed in the wake of their actions. If you want to hold them accountable and demand an end to the ongoing intimidation and harassment of Ni Yulan and others, partake in Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign, launched annually each December for the last 15 years. The campaign calls on people around the world to show support for those who suffer from human rights violations on a daily basis. This is done through writing letters directly to government officials in an attempt to not only hone in on the accountability of those in power, but show solidarity with victims that have suffered from inhumane treatment and attempt to facilitate real change. Click here to support Ni Yulan, and here to see the other people and groups you can help this year.

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