China has formally arrested at least seven human rights lawyers and their colleagues on “subversion” charges after holding them in secret for six months in a sweeping crackdown on legal activism, family and associates said yesterday.
More than 130 attorneys and legal staff were summoned or detained in July last year for questioning in what campaigners called the fiercest attempt in decades to silence activists attempting to redress injustices in China’s tightly controlled courts.
Zhou Shifeng (周世鋒), the founder of Beijing-based Fengrui law firm, which was at the center of the crackdown, has now been accused of “state subversion,” which carries a maximum sentence of life in jail, his colleague Liu Xiaoyuan (劉曉原) said yesterday on a verified social media account.
It was the first time relatives have learned the whereabouts of the 16 lawyers and their staff, who have been held by police in undisclosed locations for months.
The charges make it highly likely that the detainees are to be tried and face potentially lengthy jail terms.
Chinese courts are tightly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and have a conviction rate of more than 99.9 percent, with forced confessions often used as evidence.
A week after he was arrested, state media said Zhou — who provided legal advice to victims of a 2008 poisoned baby milk scandal — “confessed” to an unspecified crime.
Trainee lawyer Li Shuyun (李姝雲), 24, is accused of the same charge as Zhou, Liu added.
Fengrui lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) is also being held on the same charge, his sister said in an online post.
Four other people are said to be accused of “incitement to state subversion,” which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years.
They include 24-year-old legal assistant Zhao Wei (趙威), her husband and mother, Zheng Ruixia, both told reporters, citing a police notice.
“I feel deep grief,” Zheng added.
Zhou, Zhao and Li are being held at a detention center in the northern port city of Tianjin, the notices said.
Friends also posted notices on social media showing that lawyers Xie Yanyi (謝燕益), Xie Yang (謝陽) and Sui Muqing (隋牧青) had been formally arrested on the same incitement charge.
Over the past decade, a small group of a few hundred Chinese lawyers used the courts to seek redress — sometimes successfully — for what they considered egregious rights violations.
They include victims of forced demolitions, illegal “black jails,” dissidents jailed for their writing and others detained for practicing their religious faith.
State media — which in the past sometimes praised rights lawyers’ efforts — have called the attorneys a “criminal gang” who created public disorder by organizing protests outside courthouses.
The CCP does not tolerate organized dissent, and has tightened controls on civil society under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).
Despite official harassment, dozens of Chinese lawyers have come to the defense of their colleagues.
“We are defenders of human rights and the law, and possess an unyielding conviction that the rule of law will ultimately triumph over dictatorship,” a New Year statement attributed to 300 lawyers posted online said.
“The smog is thick and the night dark, but the sun will shine as the time comes,” they added.
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