China: Disbarment of Human Rights Lawyers

Ten years ago, I co-drafted a statement about the revocation of legal practice licenses of Tang Jitian and Liu Wei, two prominent human rights lawyers in China, with the New York-based Committee to Support Chinese Lawyers when I was working at the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group. The Committee for Human Rights Protection of Taipei Bar Association also co-signed the statement.

Ten years on, surprisingly (or in fact not surprisingly), many of the concerns we raised in the statement, especially the relevant provisions of the PRC Law on Lawyers and other related regulations of the All-China Lawyers Association, remain the legal weapons for the Chinese authorities to disbar lawyers whom they accuse of stirring up trouble in courtrooms or any other behaviours, including expressing their opinions on social events online, that the Chinese government doesn’t like.

Article 49(1), Clause 6, of the PRC Law on Lawyers, is the legal provision often cited by the judicial authorities in China to disbar criminal lawyers. What constitutes the meaning of “disturbing the order of the court and interfering with normal litigation” is ambiguous, and thus making lawyers vulnerable and falling into trap if they confront judges in court.

According to Tang Jitian and Liu Wei, the presiding judge of the Luzhou City Intermediate People’s Court in Sichuan interrupted them more than ten times during the presentation of their defense statements for their client, a Falun Gong practitioner, on 27 April 2009. The presiding judge also ignored the two lawyers’ requests to stop someone sitting in the public gallery from video-recording the court proceedings. So, the lawyers felt that they could no longer continue their defense work for their client.

What the lawyers chose to do was to walk out from the courtroom in protest against the judge’s behaviours.

From whatever jurisdictions, would the two lawyers’ actions constitute “disturbing the order of the court and interfering with normal litigation” under such situations? What other options would they have?

Let’s look at the laws and regulations in China that require the proper behaviours in courtrooms. According to the “Court Rules of the People’s Courts of the People’s Republic of China” (which was amended in 2016), Article 17, Clause 4, of the amended law (which was Article 9, Clause 1, in old rules), members of the public sitting in the public gallery must not make audio-recordings or video-recordings or take pictures. The two lawyers only requested the presiding judge to follow this rule but the judge ignored.

Article 36 of the Law on Lawyers requires that “the defense statements of a lawyer appointed as a legal representative or criminal defense lawyer and his/her right to engage in criminal defense are safeguarded in accordance with the law” and Article 37 (Clause 1 and Clause 2) also states that “the representation and defense statements presented in court by a lawyer shall not be subject to legal prosecution, except for statements that compromise national security, maliciously defame others, or seriously disrupt the court order”. So, did the presiding judge comply with these legal requirements?

We can also take a look of international human rights standards. Article 16 of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers (1990) requires “governments [to] ensure that lawyers (a) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference ;…(c) shall not suffer, , or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.”

More recently, many human rights lawyers in China are prepared to join the force of “disbarred lawyers” as more of them become even more active and vocal in their legal advocacy in courtroom and in their human rights work. Their legal practice licenses were either revoked or suspended as a result of their legal defense work and human rights work. In 2018, a group of lawyers, including Qin Yongpei, Wen Donghai, Wang Yu and Sui Muqing, sarcastically established the “Disbarred China Lawyers Club” (中国律师后俱乐部). Other prominent lawyers who were disbarred include Yu Wensheng (who is currentl detained), Liu Xiaoyuan and Li Jinxing.

Two days ago, human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang eventually managed to return to Beijing to reunite with his wife Li Wenzu and their son Quan Quan after he was released from prison in early April 2020 and was said to be “quarantined” in his hometown Jinan. He was detained during the 709 crackdown in 2015 and serving a 4.5-year sentence for “subverting state power”. His “crime”, like many other human rights lawyers, is just about representing human rights cases and expressing views on social and human rights issues on the internet.

With an increasing number of disbarred human rights lawyers, we simply need to question how China can still claim to be respecting lawyers’ rights and what it means to the legal profession in China. Only lawyers who keep quiet about political and social issues are allowed to survive? That’s not what rule of law and freedom of expression mean.

Hong Kong-based human rights researcher & NGO consultant| PhD Candidate at Université Jean Moulin (Lyon 3). Twitter: @patrickpoon

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