'Depressed and unemployed': China's rights lawyers battle disbarment

Eva XIAO
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Plainclothes police officers stop photographs outside the court where the human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang was tried in December 2018

Once a staunch defender of rights activists in court, Liu Zhengqing has sunk into a depression since being barred by Chinese authorities in January.

"I have been unemployed at home," the 55-year-old told AFP, adding that it is especially hard to find work given his age.

"I am totally dependent on savings."

Liu is one of at least a dozen Chinese rights lawyers to have their licenses cancelled or revoked since 2018 in what activists say is an effective way for authorities to silence them without attracting as much attention as an arrest.

"The ongoing disbarment continues to serve as an effective tactic by the Chinese government to further diminish the space for human rights advocacy," said Yaqiu Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"Disbarment is to deprive the livelihood of human rights lawyers and their families," she told AFP.

In China, authorities can revoke a lawyer's license to punish behaviour such as bribing judges, but also ambiguous offenses such as "seriously disrupting court order".

A license can also be cancelled if they do not practise in a six month period -- which is not uncommon for rights lawyers who have been detained or arrested.

The growing number of disbarred rights lawyers follows one of the largest clampdowns on China's legal profession in the country's recent history.

A police sweep launched on July 9, 2015 saw more than 200 Chinese human rights lawyers and activists detained or questioned in a huge operation -- later dubbed the "709 crackdown" -- that rights groups called "unprecedented."

But Chinese authorities have changed their approach since then, noted Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer who says he was tortured in police custody during his detention in that crackdown.

Instead of detaining lawyers, "they will just revoke your license", he told AFP.

It's an effective method, he added. "A lot of people do not dare speak up."

Widespread disbarment over the past two years has been "an even better deterrent than arresting lawyers", agreed Sui Muqing, another Chinese lawyer who was detained during the "709 crackdown".

While most lawyers do not see themselves at risk of arrest, he said, disbarment is something that every lawyer could face.

- Silencing effect -

Though the role of Chinese rights lawyers is sometimes limited in China, they serve important functions beyond legal defence.

Friends and family are not generally allowed to visit detained individuals before sentencing, but lawyers mostly are -- making them a crucial link between those arrested and the outside world.

Lawyers can also raise awareness of the case or share information with reporters.

Human rights attorneys sometimes have large followings on Chinese social media, which they use to connect with ordinary people to raise awareness of rights abuses in China, said Wang, of Human Rights Watch.

By removing human rights lawyers the government can appoint their own lawyers, who may be under pressure to "defend the interests of the government -- not their clients," she explained.

The silencing effect of disbarment can be seen in the case of Huang Qi, China's first "cyber-dissident", who was sentenced to 12 years in prison in July.

Huang, who ran a website that reported on sensitive topics including local corruption, lost two of his lawyers before he went to trial: Liu and Sui.

By the time he was sentenced, there was so little access to Huang that even his mother -- who said she was prevented from leaving her house the day of his trial -- was not informed of the court's decision.

-'Increasingly strict'-

Overall, the aftermath of the 2015 police sweep has ushered in a period of more repressive policies towards lawyers, several rights attorneys in China told AFP.

While some have had their licenses revoked or cancelled, others remain in detention.

Wang Quanzhang, who was charged with "subversion of state power" in 2016, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison in January.

And like other activists and dissidents in China, some lawyers remain under surveillance or face ongoing restrictions even after they are released from detention.

Jiang Tianyong, who took on high-profile cases including those of Tibetan protesters, is "still under house arrest" after he served his jail sentence in March, wrote Jiang's wife, who regularly posts about her husband on Twitter.

"You can tell that they are becoming increasingly strict in their control," said one Chinese rights lawyer, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

In the aftermath of the "709 crackdown", Chinese authorities can repress lawyers for making critical comments online -- even those on topics such as industrial accidents, not just human rights, he said.

"In reality, you make such comments because you hope the country will become better," he told AFP.

But now, "you cannot speak at all".