In a blow that shook China’s human rights and legal circles, mainland Chinese lawyers Lu Siwei and Ren Quanniu found themselves disbarred at the start of this year.
Judicial officials turned up at their law firms with letters saying the two human rights lawyers’ practising licences were being revoked.
The news alarmed their clients and the mainland’s human rights network and intensified tensions between Beijing and Washington, with the US State Department voicing concern over the treatment of the two lawyers.
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The pair drew attention last year as the most outspoken among lawyers representing 12 Hong Kong fugitives who were arrested while trying to flee to Taiwan in August to avoid prosecution for involvement in the 2019 anti-government protests.
Last December, 10 of them were given jail terms of seven months to three years, while two who were underage were handed back to Hong Kong police.
Looking back, Lu and Ren told the Post they were shocked not only at being disbarred, but also by the threats and pressure they endured while doing their job providing legal representation to individuals facing trial in mainland courts.
The mainland’s network of civil-rights lawyers has long been used to harassment by police and being invited to meet government officials, but Lu and Ren said they were subjected to an unprecedented level of pressure throughout the four months they were involved with the Hong Kong fugitives’ case.
Ren, 40, based in Henan province, accused authorities of threatening him on five occasions, while Lu, 48, in Sichuan province, alleged he was threatened eight times. Both claimed judicial officials in their respective provinces pressured them to quit the case and refrain from speaking to the media.
Both said their law firms were searched, and Lu’s account on the popular mainland messaging and social media platform WeChat was removed.
Ren said the Henan judicial officials he met over “tea gatherings” appeared particularly bothered by his connections with Hong Kong lawyers.
“They asked me repeatedly, ‘Who referred the case to you?’,” he recalled. “It has been common for us to take on cases through referrals and word of mouth, but I realised gradually that they were worried about possible infiltration by foreign forces.”
Lu recalled that the officials he met did not mince their words as they told him to do as they asked. He recalled one of them saying: “The consequences will be irreversible if you don’t cooperate with us.”
However, they never hinted that he might be barred from practising law, he said, nor had that come up on earlier occasions when he handled other sensitive cases and met officials at “tea sessions”.
Despite the pressure, both men insisted on representing their Hong Kong clients and neither stopped speaking to the media. They also challenged the authorities by complaining about being denied access to the accused who were being detained in Shenzhen.
Officially, Ren lost his licence for breach of regulations over a separate case, while Lu was accused of making inappropriate remarks online.
The two men said what worried them now was the effect that the action taken against them might have on their colleagues.
It would not be surprising if mainland lawyers shrank from defending Hongkongers accused of committing offences on the mainland or those sent there to be tried for flouting the national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing.
“The worst case scenario is that no more lawyers will dare to speak up for Hongkongers in politically sensitive cases,” Ren said.
Haunted by the ‘709 incident’
Although China built its criminal justice system from scratch from 1979 when it reformed the economy and opened up, the network of lawyers practising human rights law only began expanding in the 2000s.
It was always clear that this area of the law would be fraught with challenges for those who chose to practise it.
Then came the crackdown. In the summer of 2015, more than 300 human rights lawyers and activists were arrested and subjected to police interrogation, detention and forced TV confessions.
It was dubbed the “709 incident” because the crackdown began on 9 July that year.
One of the lawyers arrested, Wang Quanzhang, was only released last April after being detained for nearly five years. Wang has filed a petition with the Chinese judiciary seeking to overturn his guilty verdict of subversion against the state, and filed suits against individual police officers and court officials who handled his case, alleging wrongful trial, defamation and torture.
Beijing-based human rights lawyer Lin Qilei, who has appeared in a number of high-profile cases, said that in recent years, provincial authorities had taken to using the annual licence review of law firms to deter them from accepting sensitive cases.
All law firms have to submit their case records when applying to renew their registration, and provincial judicial officials have rejected the applications of firms that had taken on cases deemed sensitive.
A lawyer for more than a decade, Lin said that for the past three years, his firm failed to renew its registration and could not charge clients without using invoices registered by the Ministry of Justice.
“We can only take on cases free of charge. [The authorities] are suppressing us by making our business wither,” he said.
To avoid persecution, he added, many lawyers either quit sensitive cases or moved to government-friendly firms.
To Lin and others like him, taking on difficult or sensitive cases are just part of what lawyers must do as professionals.
He pointed to the Lawyers Annual Registration Regulation, which says lawyers are assessed annually on their “integrity and professionalism”, rather than the types of cases they handle or their comments on social media.
Lu and Ren are just the latest prominent rights lawyers to be disbarred or penalised in recent years.
Others who lost their practising licences over the past two months include Shandong-based Xi Xiangdong, who defended a fellow lawyer targeted in the 709 incident, and Shanghai-based Peng Yonghe, who signed an online petition calling on China to protect citizens’ right to freedom of speech amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Beijing-based Zhou Ze was suspended for a year after he went online and revealed evidence of the police interrogation process.
Wu Danhong, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, had his social media account cut after he published an article online suggesting that China would end up eliminating the entire profession to prevent lawyers from “making trouble”.
‘Harder to get a lawyer’
The 2015 crackdown certainly had an effect on mainland lawyers. Lu said that since then, the number of human rights lawyers in the mainland’s informal network has shrunk from more than 400 before the 709 incident to barely “dozens” now.
The way the authorities chose to handle the case of the 12 Hong Kong fugitives marked another setback for China’s human rights situation and created an enormous chilling effect on lawyers, Lu said.
In Beijing, legal circles have been abuzz over news concerning another lawyer involved in the Hongkongers’ case. The Post has learned that he is being investigated for a possible breach of regulations in an earlier, unrelated case.
Ren said mainland human rights lawyers would face a dilemma if a much- feared scenario came to pass, and Hongkongers were extradited to the mainland for trial under the city’s national security law.
Under Article 55 of the law, Beijing can exercise jurisdiction if cases involve “complicated situations” of interference by foreign forces, where the local government cannot effectively enforce the law, or when national security is under “serious and realistic threats”.
Ren said mainland lawyers would have to pause and ask themselves if they should take up such sensitive cases.
“When Hongkongers get into trouble in the mainland in future, it could be much more challenging for families to get legal assistance amid the escalating suppression,” he said.
Hong Kong lawyer and Democratic Party politician Albert Ho Chun-yan, chairman of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, said even if there were mainland lawyers willing to take on sensitive cases, they would be “very limited” in what they could do and would have to remain low-key.
He saw a clear message in the move to strip Lu and Ren of their practising licences.
“The revocations are a retaliation against lawyers who exposed the deficiencies of the judicial system to the international community and discredited it in effect,” he said.
In future, even if there were rights lawyers prepared to take on sensitive cases, “they might only offer legal advice behind closed doors without crossing the red line”, he added.
Chow Hang-tung, a Hong Kong barrister who has been helping families of the 12 fugitive Hongkongers, said she expected authorities to continue using the strategy of intimidating rights lawyers on the mainland and individuals linked with them in Hong Kong.
She said one of the few options left for her group, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democractic Movements of China, and other activists was to raise international awareness about the plight of rights lawyers and detainees.
“The pressure might lower their chances of undergoing interrogation, detention or secret trial in China,” said Chow, who is vice-chairwoman of the advocacy group.
‘Rough road ahead’
After Lu and Ren lost their licences to practise law, past clients in rights abuse cases paid tribute to them for persevering in an uphill struggle.
A group of residents from a remote village outside the city of Zhengzhou in Henan presented Ren with large flags emblazoned with the message: “Strong shoulders defend justice.”
Ren said he intended to remain in the human rights field as a legal assistant, while Lu was mulling a return to the financial industry where he worked before becoming a lawyer.
Ren said: “I have no way to retreat. Speaking out against injustices done to others is an obligation for me.”
Both men are appealing against the revocation of their practising licences, although they expect the process to be “rough”, and drag out over years, with “very slim” prospects of success.
“Progress in China’s judicial system cannot be reached at a single leap. The dynamics of civil society can trigger key changes over time,” Lu said.
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