In 2001, Chinese lawyer Zhisheng Gao was honoured by China's Ministry of Justice as one of the country's ten best lawyers. Gao enjoyed a prosperous career as a civil rights lawyer until he did the unthinkable: he wrote a letter to his nation's leaders asking that the Chinese government respect its own laws and redress some of the most glaring examples of gross human rights violations taking place in the country. On November 4th, after he refused to retract his letter, his legal practice was shut down and suspended for one year.
Gao, a self-trained Beijing lawyer has been one of the more outspoken critic's of China's legal system. His letter to China's president and vice president condemned, in particular, the state-sanctioned torture of Falun Gong practitioners.
“We cannot accept these brazenly inhumane, savage atrocities to occur in the society of mankind in the 21st century,” read the letter.
Mere hours before his practice was shut down, Gao had just filed an appeal on behalf of an underground protestant pastor accused of illegally printing bibles.
“Legal” bibles in China are those censored by the state, and Christians who choose not to worship in state-controlled churched are forced into underground house churches which meet with frequent persecution.
Authorities maintain that Gao's practice was shut down because he had failed to register it with authorities after moving offices this year. Gao says he tried to register the new address, but the authorities would not have it. Experts in Canada say that Gao's is a typical example of what the Chinese authorities do to defence lawyers who cross the line.
Canadians Decry Suspension
“It seems that with his open letter to President Hu Jintao, calling for an immediate end to the persecution of the Falun Gong, he went one step too far for Chinese authorities,” notes Independent Member of Parliament David Kilgour. “Not only does Beijing crack down on members of this peaceful group, they are also attempting to stifle any voice speaking out against the terrible repression the Falun Gong face.”
Guoting Guo, another formerly celebrated Chinese lawyer, calls the suspension of Gao's lawfirm “retaliation” by the Chinese Communist Party.
“As a human rights lawyer, Mr. Gao's defence for Chinese democracy activists and Falun Gong practitioners comes from a legal perspective, thus exposing the truth about the Chinese legal system. This is what the CCP is afraid of.”
Guo is no stranger to the heavy hand of the Chinese authorities. Once one of China's top maritime lawyers, Guo turned his attention in recent years to the defence of high-profile political dissidents, like independent journalist Shi Tao, and Falun Gong practitioners whose legal rights had been denied.
In July, 1999, concerned that the peaceful and apolitical practice Falun Gong had grown too popular in his atheist state, China's then-leader declared the practice illegal and set out to eradicate it, even though China's constitution guarantees citizens the right to freedom of religious belief.
Falun Gong adherents have been arrested by the hundreds of thousands and sent to prisons and forced labour camps, most of them without trial. They are denied any opportunity to defend themselves in the state-run media, and are arrested for attempting to peacefully protest the persecution. Again, all this is despite the fact that Chinese law guarantees freedom of press and the right of citizens to criticize government policy. The Chinese constitution also forbids arbitrary imprisonment or detention of citizens.
Frustrated with the glaring legal discrepancies in the government's treatment of Falun Gong adherents, Guo saw it as his mission to step up to the plate.
He, like Gao, knew it was a daring move to defend Falun Gong practitioners. Just one week after Falun Gong was declared illegal, China's Ministry of Justice sent a notice to every law firm in the country telling lawyers that they could not represent Falun Gong practitioners.
“In any event that consultations are requested by a client involving Falun Gong issues, all attorney offices' explanations must…be strictly in accordance with the tone of the central government,” read the notice.
As punishment for defending the wrong clients, Guo was put under house arrest and had his legal license revoked.
Earlier this year he came to Canada on invitation to attend a legal conference, and then sought refugee status. He now lives in Victoria where he continues to lobby for rule of law in China.
“Ending the dictatorship of the CCP has always been my calling. I see this as my historic task and I call myself the grave-digger of the CCP.”
Law in China Malleable
The story of Toronto resident Lizhi He, once an honoured engineer in Beijing and an adherent of Falun Gong, is an embodiment of the sad state of China's legal system. In July, 2000, He wrote a letter to some colleagues and friends explaining to them his view that Falun Gong was beneficial to society and was being unjustly persecuted.
Members of the state security bureau intercepted his letters. On July 21st, a group of officers abducted him from his workplace and accused him of “trying to incite social disturbance and to sabotage the social stability and political unity [of China].”
He's wife set about trying to find her husband a lawyer, but most were afraid to take the case. She finally did find a lawyer who was willing to enter a “not guilty” plea for He. For this, he had his legal license revoked. The second lawyer she found to represent He also faced intimidation from authorities; his family was placed under close surveillance and his car ransacked.
During what He calls his show trial, his defence was interrupted and omitted from the court records. When his lawyer challenged the legality of intercepting He's letters (China's constitution states that no organization or individuals may, on any grounds, infringe upon the freedom and privacy of citizens' correspondence), the lawyer was also interrupted by the judge and told that the actions of security bureau officers were considered confidential state secrets, and that state secrets could not be questioned in court.
“The trial, a mere formality, ended in a hurry because my sentence had already been set by higher authorities,” recalls He. He spent his next 3 ½ years in a detention centre where he faced routine torture and contracted tuberculosis. Upon his release he immigrated to Toronto.
According to Clive Ansley, a Victoria-based lawyer and one of a handful of foreigners to have litigated in Mainland Chinese courts, the custom of having cases pre-decided by backroom judges or higher-level party officials is common not only to the cases of Falun Gong and other religious or political dissidents.
Since 1984, when he opened the first foreign law office in Shanghai and through his 14 years of practicing law in China, Ansley handled more then 300 cases in Chinese courts.
Trials in Chinese courts appeared real, says Ansley. They had three judges, a lawyer for each party and cross examination, but the verdict was never decided by the judges. Instead, decisions were made by a back room panel of communist party members who knew virtually nothing about the cases. These party committees decided up to 25 cases per day without ever entering the courtroom.
“It was pure fraud set to mislead,” says Ansley, who has described China's legal system as a “fantastic theatre.”
Also of serious concern, he says, are the hundreds of defence lawyers who face intimidation or imprisonment for defending clients unpopular with the government and the widespread use of torture to extract confessions. China also continues to lead the world in executions.
Lawyer Still Has Hope
Since his story first made headlines earlier this month, Gao has received a flood of supporting letters and phone calls within China while elected officials as far away as Canada and the United States speak out in his defence.
“I call upon you to cease attacking human rights lawyer, Mr. Gao Zhisheng,” said Conservative Calgary MP Rob Anders in a letter to the Chinese government last week. “He is a patriotic hero to his people, fighting corruption and greed and helping the poor and underprivileged. To persecute him is akin to attacking China itself.”
Gao says one individual in China who read his open letter to the Chinese president called him by phone to offer his support, telling him, “We have been reading your articles. In the past, we had lost hope in China, but after reading this open letter of yours, we feel there is hope in China after all.”
Gao said of the incident: “As we talked, they cried, and I cried. Why do two people who do not know each other cry together? I think it must be because we mutually believe that the strength of justice can be most inspiring and that justice will prevail and is an ever-lasting truth.”
Additional reporting by Masha Loftus.