Lejla Hodzic examines legal and extra-legal strategies adopted by the authorities in China in an apparent bid to stifle dissent.
When the Chinese authorities arrested or detained more than 280 lawyers and activists in July 2015, the move was viewed as an explicit crackdown on human rights. Not only were detainees prevented from practicing law – and therefore prevented from pursuing human rights cases through legal channels – they were held in conditions that are tantamount to enforced disappearance.
Regularizing the conditions of detention for some, in January this year the Chinese authorities raised formal charges against seven lawyers who had been held in secret detention.
Consistent with a systematic effort to maintain legality while restricting the scope for human rights advocacy by members of the legal profession, the authorities recently amended the Lawyers Law, the Criminal Law, and the National Security Law, extending the scope for official intervention.
Many of the lawyers who have been arrested have been placed under “designated residential surveillance”, a kind of secret detention formalized by the Criminal Procedure Law. This authorizes incommunicado – often solitary – confinement for up to six months. While prisoners are held under these conditions, families and legal counsel have no information about their whereabouts. Since the authorities have legitimized secret detention, the risk of abuse during incarceration is likely to have increased.
The secret detention of prominent human rights lawyer Wang Yu, who was held incommunicado for six months together with her husband and child before being formally charged in January, has come to symbolize the plight of hundreds of lawyers. No information about the whereabouts of other detained human rights lawyers, including Li Heping, Li Chunfu and Wang Quanzhang, is currently available.
International jurists have called on the Chinese authorities to abide by their obligations under the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
China has not signed the Convention against Enforced Disappearances, however, which places detained human rights defenders in a particularly difficult position.
Human Rights Watch argues that the actions taken against human rights lawyers reflect a broader trend under President Xi Jinping of repressing different elements in civil society across China. The government has also sought to increase control over the Internet, broadcast and print media, and academia.
The disappearance of five Hong Kong publishers associated with books that have been critical of China’s leadership has been viewed as part of the current crackdown – and appears to have been conducted in direct violation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law (Constitution of 1997), which guarantees citizens of Hong Kong freedom from arbitrary arrest by Chinese security agents. According to a number of sources, two of the publishers have been confirmed as being held at secret locations in China. The disappearance of the publishers may be viewed as a warning that the authorities will not tolerate resistance and that they will resort to extra-judicial methods if they deem this to be necessary.
Despite calls from the international community to end the current policy towards human rights lawyers, the Chinese authorities seem determined to stop any interference in Communist Party rule. The experience of lawyers and publishers appears to reflect a willingness by the authorities to use legal and extra-legal measures to stifle dissent. As methods of silencing opposition voices are legitimized through legislative amendments, the danger of suppression of fundamental rights increases. Disappearances serve as a warning to others, while legislative restraints on the practice of law make it difficult for groups and individuals to pursue legal avenues of opposition to government policies.