Chinese security agents hooded one as they bundled him into a vehicle. Police seized others at home as their horrified families watched. More, alone when they disappeared, sent frantic text messages to friends.
Six months ago, China’s biggest-ever crackdown on human-rights lawyers saw state agents question more than 130 attorneys and their colleagues.
Among those who were taken away, at least 16 people are still being held in secret, leaving their families isolated and fearful.
The sweep demonstrates the hollowness of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) loudly proclaimed commitment to the rule of law, campaigners say, and is an attempt to end efforts to use China’s tightly controlled legal system to independently challenge official injustice.
Now, dozens of rights lawyers are trying to employ that same system to defend their absent colleagues.
“The Communist Party uses weapons to maintain its rule. We cannot use guns, but at least we can use the law,” said Yu Wensheng (余文生), who was among those held.
He represents lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), but says police have denied him access to his client and refused to say where he is being held.
A document police sent him last month shows that Wang — who has defended members of the banned religious group Falun Gong — is accused of “inciting state subversion” and “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”
It said he is being held under a form of “residential surveillance,” under which suspects can be held for up to six months incommunicado in unofficial jails.
“In a detention center there are rules and prosecutors are responsible, but with residential surveillance, it’s just the police themselves,” Yu said. “We suspect they are subject to torture.”
China’s courts are tightly controlled by the CCP, with forced confessions often used as evidence and guilty verdicts delivered in more than 99.9 percent of criminal cases.
Over the past decade, a small group of a few hundred lawyers, sometimes with official encouragement, used the courts to seek redress — sometimes successfully — for what they considered egregious rights violations.
They include cases of people affected by forced demolitions, illegal “black jails,” dissidents jailed for their writing and others detained for practicing their religious faith.
Beijing law firm Fengrui, which has defended people who claimed sexual abuse, members of banned religious groups and dissident academics, was at the center of the crackdown and has seven of its staff still detained.
The firm courted publicity in a censored media environment, taking legal activism “to a new level,” King’s College London transnational law specialist Eva Pils said.
“Basically, what the party-state has been trying to do is make an example of them. It raises the question of whether the government thinks it really needs defense lawyers,” Pils said.
Fengrui founder Zhou Shifeng (周世鋒), who advised the families of children poisoned by milk powder in a 2008 scandal, was led away from a Beijing hotel with a hood over his head on July 10, a witness said.
A week later, state TV showed him “confessing guilt” under detention in a report that said he had “inappropriate relationships” with at least five women.
Broadcaster CCTV said the lawyers had tricked clients and “created a nuisance” in court by rowing with officials, making recordings and taking photographs. No official charges were mentioned.
Yu said Fengrui stirred the CCP’s greatest fear — organized dissent — by connecting “grassroots people” and activists, disturbing “the authorities’ political bottom line.”
At a key meeting in 2014, the party declared that it was pursuing the “rule of law with Chinese characteristics,” vowing to protect suspects’ and lawyers rights’ and create a fairer justice system to placate widespread anger over injustices.
However, it also made clear that the CCP would retain its supremacy over the legal system.
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