Over 200 lawyers in China have signed an open letter of protest against the authorities after a court in Jilin, a northern province of China, had the lawyer Zhang Keke physically removed from the court by police, when he attempted to mount a legal defense for his client, a practitioner of Falun Gong.
Zhang was representing Zhang Guixia (no relation), 65, and her husband Tian Yifu, 63. They had been taken from their homes in July and subsequently held incommunicado—the precise legal charges against them are unclear; Zhang was effectively told by security officials that their beliefs are illegal, according to an August account by Minghui, a Falun Gong website that carries first hand reports from China. He argued in turn that their detention was unconstitutional and illegal.
The judge had prior to the hearing warned Zhang not to make reference to the constitution in his defense—an order that Zhang duly ignored.
“I said that having this belief can’t constitute a crime,” Zhang said, in an interview with New Tang Dynasty Television, referring to the belief and practice of Falun Gong, a traditional spiritual discipline which has been persecuted by the Communist Party since 1999. “The constitution and the law protects Chinese citizens’ freedom of belief.”
He added: “The judge got extremely angry. I continued my defense, and then he suddenly called for me to be taken away.” Separately, Zhang said, “the judge said that Falun Gong cases can’t lodge ‘not guilty’ defenses.”
An officer with the public security bureau—not a court bailiff—then dragged him from the room. He was held for five hours by public security authorities—specifically, the much-feared national security police, or Guobao, before being released.
The lawyers who have put their names to the open letter are calling for the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber stamp legislature, and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the state prosecutor, to investigate the actions of the court and the security bureau. Signing such a document is a potentially risky move in China, given that speaking out against the Party, especially on such a politically sensitive topic, can meet with stiff reprisals.
“We are extremely astonished and furious,” the lawyers wrote in the letter. “We strongly condemn the twisting of the law and abuse of power by the Liaoyuan City public security authorities.” The case was being heard in the city of Liaoyuan, in Jilin Province.
The letter set out five legal arguments as to why the forceful, physical removal of a lawyer from court, while court is in session and he is giving a defense, is itself illegal (article 37 of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Lawyers was cited in this connection.)
Their open letter was widely published online and, unusually, was not deleted from the popular social website Tieba, run by the state-affiliated Internet behemoth Baidu. Typically, news about rights defense lawyers and their struggles to see due process are politically sensitive topics and are purged from Chinese websites. (The post did not mention the terms Falun Gong, which remain mostly proscribed on the Chinese internet.)
Falun Gong is a Chinese traditional spiritual practice, which includes physical exercises and moral tenets. It grew popular through the 1990s in China, but the Communist Party, and its leader at the time Jiang Zemin, targeted it for elimination at the end of the decade, in part because with between 70 to 100 million practitioners it was considered to have grown too popular and outside the tight controls of the Party. The persecution of the practice has led to thousands of deaths through torture, and possibly tens of thousands more who were executed so their organs could be harvested and trafficked, according to human rights researchers.
Tang Jitian, a well-known civil rights lawyer in China, said in an interview with Epoch Times: “Even in the majestic court of law the human rights of lawyers cannot be protected—much less in police lockups, jail, or anywhere else. As Zhang Keke’s friend, and as a lawyer, we must seriously respond to this, condemn it, and assist Zhang Keke to pursue legal remedies against those who violated the law. We must tell everyone about their lawlessness, and make those organs of the state that violate the law pay the price exacted by the law, and justice.”
Human rights lawyers in China have come alive with condemnation of the authorities in this incident. It represents a significant shift from 2005, when Gao Zhisheng, the first lawyer to defend Falun Gong practitioners, was initially shunned by his colleagues and warned that he would be setting back the rights defense movement by taking on such a heavily persecuted group. Instances of lawyers defending Falun Gong have increased substantially, and the authorities’ reprisal against those who do so inevitably meets with enormous pushback from the Chinese rights defense legal community.
With reporting by Luo Ya.