New Challenge For China's Human Rights Lawyers: Defending Themselves

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Yuan Shanshan holds her 5-month-old baby on the outskirts of Beijing. Her husband, human rights lawyer Xie Yanyi, was arrested last year on charges of inciting subversion, and she's waiting until he's released to name the child. Xie is expected to stand trial soon. He's among a large number of Chinese human rights lawyers who have been prosecuted in the past year.

Human rights lawyers in China have defended some of the country's most dispossessed citizens: migrant laborers, ethnic and religious minorities, victims of land grabs, and of course, political dissidents.

Now these attorneys face an even tougher challenge: defending themselves.

Government prosecutors are preparing to try another batch of rights lawyers, charged with crimes of subversion. Since July 2015, authorities have arrested or questioned most of the country's estimated 300 rights lawyers.

The trials appear part of a larger effort by the government to quash challenges to its authority from civil society.

One of those awaiting trial is Xie Yanyi. In 2003, he unsuccessfully tried to sue the country's ex-president, Jiang Zemin. Xie argued that the president had violated China's constitution by retaining control of the military, despite having retired from his job as president and Communist Party chairman.

Xie has been charged with incitement to subversion, apparently over another case. But his wife, Yuan Shanshan only found out about the charges from media reports.

Yuan and Xie's 5-month-old baby coos and gurgles, during an interview with his mom. He was born after his father disappeared into police custody in July of last year.

Yuan is waiting, nervously, until her husband gets out of jail before naming their son.

"Our family hired a lawyer, but the authorities barred him from representing my husband," she recounts. "I have had no communication with my husband, and I have no way of knowing if he's dead or alive."

Yuan says police forced her landlord to evict her, so she and her baby have been staying with friends.

Trial expected soon

Yuan expects her husband's case to go to trial soon, and she says she hopes it is broadcast on TV.

"I want people to be able to judge for themselves what kind of man my husband is," she says, "and whether China's laws are really capable of protecting his rights."

Eva Pils, an expert on China's human rights lawyers at King's College London, in the United Kingdom, says the campaign against the rights lawyers appears to be a bid by China's leaders to centralize power in their own hands, and limit civil rights in the name of national security.

Pils says those civil rights are exactly what China's rights lawyers are trying to protect. She says the cases they handle send a larger message: "that China's system needed to change, it needed to reform in order to give better protection to rights, and that I think is centrally what the government doesn't want to tolerate."

The government has accused the lawyers of joining in a U.S.-led plot to topple the Chinese government.

It takes special aim at the lawyer's brand of legal activism, which employs social media and street protests to sway public opinion on politically sensitive court cases.

Activist and paralegal Zhai Yanmin said as much in court, where judges handed him a suspended three-year jail term last month.

State media televised his admission of guilt in court.

"I maliciously hyped up the cases on the Internet," he says, "and I tarnished the image of the Communist Party and the government. I was used by overseas media and hostile forces to do this."

Citing constitutional rights

Human rights lawyers Shang Baojun says that it's not hard to defend against such charges.

They can do so by arguing that the rights lawyers are just exercising the right of free speech guaranteed by China's constitution.

"It doesn't matter if what he said is right or wrong," Shang says. "What matters is that you can't arrest and jail someone because of what they say or what they think."

The problem, Shang says, is that the government forcibly appoints defense lawyers who assume their clients are guilty. Even if the lawyers defended their clients' innocence, he adds, it would be unlikely to affect the judges' decision.

But the government's actions are not monolithic. Shang was barred from representing a defendant in the current batch of trials. But he has been able to defend some rights lawyers since the crackdown began last year. Two of his clients were convicted, but received suspended jail sentences.

Shang says the authorities don't like him and his firm, but they are tolerated because they handle political cases strictly by the book.

"We don't get into the politics," Shang says, "and we try to avoid ticking the authorities off."

Shang is concerned whether he and other rights lawyers will be allowed to take on politically sensitive cases in future. In the long term he's optimistic. He says that this is just the darkness before the dawn.

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