BEIJING – An outspoken Chinese human rights lawyer who has spent his career defending political dissidents, underground religious activists and disgruntled citizens is to fight the closure of his firm by suing the Beijing authorities.
Gao Zhisheng was told by the Beijing Bureau of Justice on Friday that his office's licence would be suspended for one year, preventing him from seeing arrested clients and appearing in court, he said in an interview on Tuesday.
Gao said he has not yet received formal written notice of the office closure, and he planned to keep working until he did and then sue the local justice office to halt the move.
Officials told Gao the official reason for their action was that he failed to register his law firm's change of address. But they also said the real reason was his bold legal activism, Gao said.
Gao had tried to register his 13-lawyer office many times since August, and officials refused to deal with his application, he said.
“They were looking for an excuse to curtail me,” he said, adding that officials recently searched his office and examined his accounts for tax offences.
Gao belongs to a small but increasingly influential group of Chinese lawyers and experts who hope to use courts and the Chinese government's declared embrace of the “rule of law” as a way to challenge official power itself.
Gao, 41, has been a lawyer for eight years, and for the past three he has led a hectic life of representing political cases across the country, including followers of the Falun Gong spiritual sect that was banned as an “evil cult” after it surrounded the Communist Party's headquarters in 1999.
On Oct. 18, Gao issued a public call for China to lift its ban on the Falun Gong and release detained followers. He also campaigned on behalf of residents of Taishi village, in the far southern province of Guangdong, whose protests against land corruption have attracted nationwide attention.
“You've become a symbol of resistance to the government by the way you've handled these cases,” Gao said an official told him.
Chinese authorities in September also held Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught legal activist in rural Shandong, after he publicly accused family planning officials in his hometown of Linyi of carrying out forced, late-pregnancy abortions.
Gao also represented another lawyer, Zhu Jiuhu, who was arrested for organising small investors in western China's Shaanxi province whose oil wells were confiscated. Zhu was released, uncharged, in September.
“China's power holders place no value on the dignity of lawyers. But when we're harassed and arrested for doing their job, that crosses a dangerous line and we should all stand up,” Gao said.