Prominent rights defense lawyers Cheng Hai (程海) and Li Subin (李苏濱) were asked to leave their positions at the Beijing Yitong Law Firm on October 30, 2008. They are among 35 lawyers who published an appeal on the Internet on August 26, 2008, calling for direct election of the officials of the state-controlled Beijing Lawyers Association [equivalent to Bar Association]. Earlier, five other lawyers at the same firm were dismissed or left voluntarily.
According to Li, six or seven officials from the Haidian District Bureau of Justice went to the firm on October 30 to take photographs and questioned the staff about cases that the firm has taken on. Cheng and Li said that the director of their firm, which has accepted and represented many rights defense cases over the years, has expressed concern and feels strong pressure for the first time from the authorities to rid the firm of some of the rights defense cases as well as staff lawyers who support the direct election of the Lawyers Association officials.
In their August appeal, titled, “An Appeal to All Beijing Lawyers, the Municipal Bureau of Justice, and the Municipal Lawyers Association: Keep Pace with the Course of History, Implement Lawyers Association Direct Election,” the lawyers called into question the legitimacy of the three-decade old Beijing Lawyers Association, and demanded the Lawyers Association allow independent candidates to run in the triennial election at the end of 2008. On September 5, 2008, the Beijing Lawyers Association responded with a “Stern Statement,” alleging that the appeal was “illegal,” and that it was essentially a “total repudiation of China’s current lawyers administrative system, judicial system, and even political system.”
“The authorities once again overreacted to a reasonable proposal for democratic reform,” said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China. “The worsening intimidation of lawyers raises serious concern about the future of a rule of law in China.”
In early September, Tang Jitian (唐吉田), a signer of the appeal and lawyer at the Beijing firm, Haodong, was asked by his superiors to leave, “for the sake of the future of the firm.” On September 24, Tang filed a complaint, in Xicheng District Court, against the Beijing Lawyers Association, charging that its statement devalued the reputation of the signers of the appeal and was libelous, and that it violated the principles in Chinese law and the international treaties signed by the Chinese government. The court has not registered the complaint yet. In mid-October, Tang’s firm, under pressure from the authorities, had no choice but to terminate Tang’s contract.
According to the organizers of the appeal, which has garnered 82 signatures by mid-October, the repercussion of the public appeal is being felt widely. Many signers or heads of their law firms have been summoned by their district bureaus of justice to report on the motivation of the group and on any “hostile external forces” that backed the appeal. Heads of firms were told that if their lawyers failed to withdraw their signatures, their firms would face problem with their annual licensing inspection.
HRIC urges the All-China Lawyers Association and the Ministry of Justice to intervene and support any effort that would contribute to the development of an independent and professional bar in China.
For more information on the direct election, see: