China Abolishes Top Beijing Law Firm Known For Human Rights Cases

2018-11-13
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The marquee of the Fengrui law firm is shown at its Beijing office in a July 17, 2015 photo.
The marquee of the Fengrui law firm is shown at its Beijing office in a July 17, 2015 photo.
AP

The Chinese law firm raided at the start of a nationwide police operation targeting rights attorneys, law firms and activists in July 2015 has now "ceased to exist," RFA has learned.

Police raided several prominent members of the Beijing Fengrui law firm on the night of July 9, 2015 and in the days and weeks that followed, detaining many of them on suspicion of subversion.

International rights groups have repeatedly called on China to release all human rights lawyers who remain behind bars, after more than 300 lawyers, law firm employees, and activists were detained and questioned in the crackdown.

While many were released from immediate detention, some lost their license to practice, while others found themselves and loved ones subjected to round-the-clock police surveillance and travel bans.

Former Fengrui partner Liu Xiaoyuan said officials at the Beijing municipal justice bureau, which overseas the legal profession, issued notification that its license to practice law had been revoked.

"Now that the license to practice has been revoked, Fengrui law firm has completely ceased to exist," Liu told RFA on Tuesday.

"It is unable to carry out any activities related to [legal] practice," Liu said.

Sensitive cases

In its early days, Fengrui was run by its founder Zhou Shifeng, later evolving into a partnership with more than 60 lawyers working on "sensitive" cases, with clients ranging from victims of the melamine-tained infant formula scandal, practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, and dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

Nine of its lawyers and administrative staff were detained in the initial July 2015 crackdown, and while some have been released, they have all been stripped of their license to practise, Liu said.

"Both I and Zhou were Fengrui partners, and, based on what I've heard, we'll have problems if we try to move to different law firm," he said.

"According to the regulations on the management of lawyers, I should be able to transfer now that Fengrui no longer exists."

"But I don't know whether another law firm might reject me because of background resistance from the relevant departments. That's always a possibility, and I'm not very optimistic," he said.

CHRLCG spokeswoman Kit Chan said the revocation of Fengrui's license to practice comes after its financial liquidation audit in March.

"The financial records were seized [in March] but the audit has taken this long to complete ... but now the firm has been abolished,"

Chan said Chinese lawyers must be part of a law firm in order to maintain their personal licenses.

"If a lawyer hasn't joined a law firm in six months, their license will be revoked, so if the authorities suppress an entire law firm, they are also suppressing the individual lawyers," she said.

"Nowadays, the authorities often put pressure on law firms not to allow their lawyers to represent clients in human rights cases," Chan said.

Restrictive amendments

The amendments to the Ministry of Justice's "Administrative Measures for Law Firms," which came into effect on Jan. 1, 2016, targeted lawyers who speak out about rights abuses within the judicial system, placing them at risk of losing their livelihoods, especially in "sensitive" political cases.

The new rules effectively banned lawyers from speaking to the media or walking out of court in response to torture, forced confessions or other violations of their clients' rights.

Lawyers were also banned from putting pressure on the authorities by speaking out in public about cases, and from "slandering" judicial and law enforcement agencies.

Petitions and signature campaigns, open letters, gathering online in chat groups, or expressing solidarity with parties involved in their cases are also penalized.

Any lawyers engaging in "putting out distorted or misleading information and commentary" face sanctions for "malicious speculation" on cases, which includes talking to the media.

No basis to revoke

But some lawyers are fighting back.

Guangxi-based Tan Yongpie said on Tuesday that he has applied for compensation from the regional justice bureau for lost income resulting from the revocation of his license.

Tan filed the claim at the Railway Transportation Court in Guangxi's Nanning city on Tuesday, saying that his bill could be paid if every one of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's 90 million members chipped in just 10 yuan.

"I can't just take this lying down without fighting back," Tan told RFA. "I think that it was illegal for them to do this. There was no legal basis for revoking my lawyer's license, in spite of the fact that the Communist Party likes to talk about the rule of law."

"They acted totally arbitrarily," said Tan, adding that his former law firm, Baijuming, was the southern equivalent of Beijing's Fengrui.

"If they won't accept the case, I will take it to the Intermediate People's court, and then to the Higher People's Court," he said.

Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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