Government officials on Friday shut down the office of a prominent lawyers’ group known for taking on cases involving civil rights and corruption. It was the latest attempt by the government to clamp down on lawyers willing to challenge officials and other powerful figures in court.
The group of volunteer lawyers, called Gongmeng, or Open Constitution Initiative (OCI), represented parents suing Sanlu Group, a large dairy company, over tainted milk that led to the deaths and illnesses of children across China last year.
In May, it released a report that said economic policies by the government had resulted in the marginalization of Tibetans over the decades, leading to the widespread protests and riots in Tibetan areas last year.
At 10am on Friday, officials from the Beijing Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau arrived at Gongmeng’s office in Beijing and shut it down, a posting on the group’s Web site said.
Two hours later, officials from the Beijing Tax Bureau paid a visit.
Xu Zhiyong (�?�), a member of the group, said that officials had told the lawyers they were not registered as a non-governmental organization.
But Xu said the lawyers’ group technically did not need that kind of registration because it was a charity organization that fell under the umbrella of Gongmeng Co, which has a proper operating license.
“The shutdown itself is unreasonable,” Xu said. “We’ll continue to be conscientious and help those who need help.”
Two days earlier, the tax authorities had fined the group about US$200,000 for a delay in paying its taxes.
On Friday, the officials from the Civil Affairs Bureau took away the lawyers’ computers, desks, chairs and material on legal cases, Xu said.
Officials at the bureau could not be reached for comment on Friday night.
Xu said the group had already filed an appeal on the tax fine and might appeal the shutdown of the office.
In a separate government action, the licenses of 53 lawyers in Beijing were canceled, making it impossible for them to legally work.
A posting last week on the Web site of the Beijing Justice Bureau said the lawyers had not passed an assessment by their firms or had failed to register with the bureau.
The clampdown prompted condemnation from several rights groups.
“This incident is another example of the government’s hostility to independent civil society organizations and rights defense activities,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China.
New-York based Human Rights Watch said the closure of Gongmeng was a worrying sign for rights lawyers in China, many of whom have been targeted in recent years.
“The attack on OCI marks a new low in the Chinese government’s campaign against human rights defenders,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “This is precisely the kind of organization whose work the government should value, as it helps ease grievances and minimize unrest.”
Lawyers who have taken on controversial cases have been increasingly detained or harassed ahead of sensitive dates in China this year, including the 60th anniversary of the founding of the communist state in October, rights groups have said.