China to punish law firms for lawyers’ rights activism

Chinese lawyer Zhou Shifeng during his trial in Tianjin in northern China. (Photo courtesy: The Guardian)
Chinese lawyer Zhou Shifeng during his trial in Tianjin in northern China. (Photo courtesy: The Guardian)

(, Oct12, 2016) – In a further crackdown on human rights lawyers, China is to hold law firms to account for lawyers who write open letters, sign petitions or organise forums to pressurise judicial authorities, reported the Sep 25. The report said that some 168 lawyers had signed a petition letter to the State Council, or China’s cabinet, calling for revocation of the new amendments proposed by the Ministry of Justice, which aim to crackdown further on human rights lawyers and hold firms responsible if their lawyers make ‘misleading and distorting comments’ on cases or ‘provoke discontent towards the Communist Party’.

Law firms are also liable for punishment if their lawyers sign petitions, file open letters or hold legal forums to discuss cases to “exert pressure on” or “attack” judicial departments. The report noted that amid widespread criticism of the fairness of China’s judiciary bodies, lawyers, legal scholars and activists had repeatedly drawn public attention to controversial cases through such means.

The petition was reported to say the new amendments ‘will not protect the national interest and the socialist legal system. Instead, it will lead to the decline and decay of the practise of law in China.’

The amendments will come into effect in Nov 2016. The move is seen as another move to silence lawyers critical of the authorities as Beijing wraps up a campaign to crack down on rights lawyers that began last July. The crackdown, known as the 709 incident, refers to the date of the first detentions. More than 300 human rights lawyers and activists had been detained, sentenced or questioned since then. Four were sentenced last month to jail terms ranging from three to seven years on subversion charges.

While lawyers were already being persecuted for these alleged infractions, there was no legal ground for acting against them until the latest amendments. “Judicial departments and lawyers’ associations have asked lawyers to refrain from such discussions, but there was no legal grounds to do so then,” veteran criminal lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan was quoted as saying.

The amended regulation is also stated to provide that supporting the leadership of the Communist Party and the socialist legal system is the fundamental goal of all law firms.


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