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Practicing Law in China: Chinese Lawyer Punished for Defending Human Rights

Practicing law, a profession that was eliminated after the Communists took power, was reinstated in the 1980s and has now become a hot career in China. According to the All China Lawyers Association, which was founded in 1986, there are 110,000 lawyers practicing in China today. However, when Chinese lawyers defend their clients’ human rights in accordance with Chinese law, they often find themselves at odds with the communist government.

On February 23, 2005, a dozen or so police officers from Shanghai’s Justice Department (Shanghai Judicial Bureau) suddenly raided the offices of the Tian-yee Law Group, the workplace of Guo Guoting, a prominent Shanghai lawyer who has been widely acclaimed for his courage in defending “politically sensitive” civil rights cases in China. The police searched his offices, seized his license, and confiscated his computer that contained his work of the past 20 years.

A few days later, on March 4, the Shanghai Judicial Bureau held a brief hearing on Guo’s case. The Bureau banned Guo from practicing law for one year on the charge of “anti-constitutional speeches and acts” and put him under house arrest while under investigation for criminal charges. To prevent the hearing from attracting public attendance, the location for the hearing was abruptly changed at the last minute on the day of the hearing.

Guo’s arrest sent a shockwave to international human rights groups. Reporters Without Borders, The Committee to Protect Journalists, and The International Freedom of Expression Exchange immediately issued statements protesting Guo’s arrest.

According to Shanghai Judicial Bureau authorities, Guo’s arrest and ban from practicing law was linked, at least in part, to an article he had posted on the Internet on February 16, 2005. That article detailed his efforts to defend a client who had been sentenced to five years in prison for practicing Falun Gong and was on the verge of death. Since government officials had repeatedly denied Guo’s request to visit his client, Guo used the Internet as a last resort to make the details of the case known to the public.

Excerpts of his client’s story:

“Qu Yanlai graduated from Shanghai Jiaotong University in 2000. He was the winner of the National Chemistry Olympics special award and received first place in the Mathematics Olympics competition. On July 20, 1999, he began practicing Falun Gong, …to exercise self-discipline and to be a moral and dignified person.

“At midnight on September 30, 2002, Qu was abducted by the local Shanghai police. He was officially detained on October 2 and formally arrested on November 2. A Putuo Court hearing was held on June 2, 2003; the Court pronounced the No. 324 (2003) criminal sentence: Qu was found guilty of ‘using a cult organization to damage the execution of the law’ and was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.

“From the time of his abduction to the time of sentencing, his relatives received no notification. When they discovered he was missing, his family members searched everywhere for him and spent about 100,000 yuan ($US12,062) to no avail. Finally, on July 2, 2003, they received the court verdict in the mail from Shanghai.

“His mother wrote in her appeal: ‘We learned that Qu Yanlai was illegally sentenced to five years in prison. No one notified us of his whereabouts. … I came to Shanghai in the intense summer heat in August 2003, and called the court asking for my son’s whereabouts. One judge said, ‘You dare to make the phone call? I will monitor you. I will arrest you. He already went back to his home.’

“‘If it had not happened directly to me, I really would not believe this. A judge casually talking about monitoring, arrestingwho gave him this authority! I eventually went to the court to inquire, and this judge said, ‘He is in the Putuo district jail. Do not come to ask me again!’ I then went to the Putuo district jail, where a police officer said, ‘He is in Qingpu jail.’ I took a taxi to the Qingpu jail and waited for a couple of hours, but around noon, the gate guard said, ‘There is no such person.’

“‘I called the Putuo district jail again, and was told that he was indeed in Qingpu! I immediately felt as if thunder were exploding around my ears. Where was my son after all? … A son was wrongfully arrested and unjustly sentenced, and I, his mother, was deprived of the right to know his whereabouts. Finally we learned from the Chief Justice that he was in the Tilangiao Prison. I rushed to the Tilangiao Prison. It was then after a year’s effort and through repeated hazards that mother and child got to meet and cry on each other’s shoulders. Even the policemen present were all in tears.'”

In the article, Guo disclosed how he had gotten involved in Qu’s case and how government officials had denied him permission to meet with his client.

“To protest his unjust sentence, … Qu Yanlai carried on a prolonged hunger strike. During that time, he suffered many merciless beatings, as well as barbaric forced feedings causing four serious gastric bleeding. He was sent to the hospital for four months and declared critically ill several times. His parents traveled long distances from northern Daqing to Shanghai Tilangiao Prison to persuade their son to resume eating. Because he could not stand to see his parents suffering, he initially agreed to resume eating, but because the prison strictly forbade him to practice Falun Gong in prison, the steadfast Qu continued fasting to protest for his legal rights until his mother told him a genuine attorney would defend him. Only then did he stop his protest, which obviously placed a huge expectation on me, his defense attorney!

“The Law states that an attorney has the right to meet with the litigant in custody, and the prison must arrange a meeting with the attorney within 48 hours. However, 90 days had passed, and despite four applications to meet, the prison still illegally denied our meeting. … Falun Gong practitioners, being citizens, should enjoy the very minimum right of equality. Yet what guilt did Qu have in believing in truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance? Even his right to meet an attorney was denied.”

When Guo’s request to meet his dying client was rejected, concern for his client’s welfare and his sense of justice prompted him to report the case on the Internet. However, by doing so he had violated a tabooin China, no one is allowed to voice support for Falun Gong practitioners.

Over the years, international media and human rights groups have reported that Falun Gong practitioners are deprived of their legal rights in Chinese courts. Lawyers have received instructions not to defend Falun Gong practitioners unless arranged by the government and not to make non-guilty pleas when representing Falun Gong. In Falun Gong cases, judges have been instructed that they must accept the instructions of the “610 Office,” an extra-judicial body established by the Chinese Communist Party specifically to suppress Falun Gong. Moreover, the Chinese courts have in most cases refused to accept any lawsuits brought by or on behalf of Falun Gong practitioners. Guo’s article is the first published piece of evidence from a legal professional inside China that reveals the severity of the persecution against Falun Gong and the impact the regime’s unlawful campaign is having on China’s legal system.

Guo didn’t start his human rights and civil rights law practice in June 2003. He is a distinguished lawyer with over 20 years of practice in international trade law, international maritime law, marine insurance law, and litigation. He is a part-time professor of law and the author of several legal textbooks. He is also an arbitrator with both the Maritime Arbitration Committee and the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Committee.

In his first case, Guo defended Zheng Enchong, another civil rights lawyer. Zheng was one of the very few lawyers who were willing to take on the class action lawsuit for the Shanghai citizens who had been forced to evacuate their homes without proper compensation in order to make way for real estate development. The opponents in such cases were usually wealthy developers backed by the untouchable Municipal Government. Zheng was later sentenced to three years in prison under a fabricated charge of “leaking state secrets.” From then on, Guo took on more civil rights cases.

Over the last year, Guo has defended several prominent dissident writers, including Huang Jinqiu, Zhang Lin, and Shi Tao, all of whom are imprisoned for such vague “crimes” as “subversion of state power,” “endangering state security,” or “divulging state secrets abroad.” These are “sensitive” cases that attract the attention of government authorities.

Obviously, Guo could have lived a very comfortable life if he had played it safe. It takes courage and compassion for a Chinese lawyer to take on human rights law in China. Guo said, “I know clearly that this choice will have no financial benefits at all. Instead, I will be facing heavy political, economic, and mental pressure. I have to be prepared for reprisals at any time. However, a person should pursue a higher principle. Even though an individual’s power is so small, the effort is still meaningful. I am aware that I am choosing the most difficult and dangerous path. My only wish is to contribute a little bit to help establish the rule of law in China.”

Guo’s efforts have not yielded any measurable results for his client Mr. Qu. However, Guo’s article on the Internet, his arrest and mistreatment, his courage and his personal sacrifices, have drawn considerable attention. Clive Ansley, a prominent Canadian lawyer, who had practiced maritime law in Shanghai for 14 years, publicly called on his colleagues and others to join the efforts to rescue Guo. Many concerned people, organizations and individuals both inside and outside China, are signing the petition or publishing articles on the Internet in support of Guo Guoting.

In the past five-plus years, few in the Chinese legal community have dared to voice support for Falun Gong practitioners in the face of the brutal persecution in China. As a result, Chinese authorities have moved further and further away from the rule of law. Guo is among the brave Chinese lawyers to challenge the prohibition on defending Falun Gong practitioners. Whether his actions will help move China towards respecting the rule of law, will depend on the response of the international community.

Joshua Li is a Chinascope correspondent.