Friday, August 28, 2009

"China: Rights Advocacy Aide’s Status Is Uncertain," by Edward Wong, The New York Times

August 26, 2009

Human rights advocates and Chinese lawyers say that the office assistant of a prominent rights lawyer probably was not freed by the government over the weekend, as some of the advocates had originally said. They said it was unclear whether the assistant was in detention or had been released but remained under some sort of restriction. The assistant, Zhuang Lu, 27, worked at the Gongmeng legal center, which has tried to represent downtrodden Chinese citizens in cases that often involve official corruption. Ms. Zhuang and a founder of Gongmeng, Xu Zhiyong, were taken from their homes by security forces on July 29. Mr. Xu was released on Sunday.

Several rights advocates said Mr. Xu had been told by officials that Ms. Zhuang had also been released. But Teng Biao, another founder of Gongmeng, said Wednesday night that Ms. Zhuang’s mother had just received a brief, cryptic call from her daughter, who said she was awaiting trial and was not allowed to leave Beijing.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

UPDATE ON RELEASE: "Without Explanation, China Releases 3 Activists," by Michael Wines, The New York Times

August 23, 2009

BEIJING — Chinese authorities unexpectedly released three political activists from detention on Sunday, including one whose case had drawn global attention.

Officials offered no reason for the releases, but they occurred one day after the new American ambassador to China, former Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. of Utah, arrived in Beijing.

The government did not say whether it had also suspended criminal tax-evasion charges made last week against the most prominent of the freed men, Xu Zhiyong, a public-interest lawyer, that could result in a prison sentence of seven years were he to be convicted.

The prosecution of Mr. Xu in particular has attracted scrutiny abroad because of his role in other cases that are seen as a test of the Chinese legal system’s fairness. Mr. Xu, 36, and a co-worker, Zhuang Lu, were released more than three weeks after they were seized in their homes on July 29. The authorities also shut down Mr. Xu’s Gongmeng legal center, also known as the Open Constitution Initiative, from which Mr. Xu and others had taken on cases against government authorities.

Recently, Mr. Xu’s center represented parents whose children were sickened by chemical-tainted milk, a regulatory scandal that embarrassed the government and led to the collapse of one of the nation’s biggest dairy companies.

In a separate case, Beijing authorities also released Ilham Tohti, an economist, Internet activist and ethnic Uighur detained after deadly riots erupted in the western Xinjiang region in early July.

Mr. Tohti, 39, ran a Web site called Uighur Online, a popular forum for ethnic Uighurs, who live mostly in Xinjiang, to discuss issues important to them. After the July rioting, Xinjiang’s governor, Nur Bekri, charged that the site had helped foment the violence by spreading rumors. The Web site has since been closed.

The government has accused Mr. Xu of evading taxes on a $100,000 grant that Yale University gave the Gongmeng center for legal programs. The charges are widely regarded by outsiders as punishment for Mr. Xu’s advocacy of the rule of law.

China’s court system is controlled by the ruling Communist Party, and legal decisions — especially in cases with important political or social ramifications — are often regarded as skirting written law to reflect the dictates of party officials.

The accusation against Mr. Xu was filed during a general crackdown by Chinese authorities on independent activists, and particularly on those activists who receive financing from foreign sources. In a recent speech, China’s justice minister warned lawyers that their primary duty was to support the Communist Party and promote a “harmonious society,” and said that party minders would be sent to law firms to enforce that doctrine.

China scholars and political analysts have speculated for months about whether the crackdown is temporary, perhaps linked to government concerns about disruption of the October celebration of the 60th anniversary of modern China’s founding, or whether it is part of a broader and longer-lasting effort to curtail free speech.

Mr. Xu’s detention and later arrest have surprised many here because his Gongmeng center is regarded as among the most cautious and conservative of China’s small band of public-interest organizations.

While the center has pursued some high-profile cases, it has been careful to work within the parameters of Chinese law and to focus on helping Chinese citizens secure already recognized legal rights.

UPDATE ON RELEASE: "China releases reform activists," by Kathrin Hille, The Financial Times

August 23, 2009

China has released two prominent reform proponents in a twist following its recent crackdown on activists.

Xu Zhiyong, a law scholar and organiser of one of the country’s largest legal aid groups, who had been accused of tax evasion, and Zhuang Lu, his assistant, were released on bail on Sunday.

Ilham Tohti, an economist who belongs to the Uighur ethnic group and who was detained shortly after the July 5 riots in Urumqi, capital of the western region of Xinjiang, also returned home.

The detentions of Mr Xu and Mr Tohti drew widespread criticism because, although outspoken, both academics are committed to reform within the system.

Mr Xu’s lawyers say the charge of tax evasion lacks evidence but is connected to the fact that his non-government organisation, the Open Constitution Initiative, is registered as a company and has been accused of failing to pay its taxes properly.

China’s opaque legal system, where decisions in cases regarded as important or politically sensitive are frequently made by Communist party officials rather than judges, makes it hard to tell whether Mr Xu’s release lowers the risk of prosecution.

Li Xiongbing, a lawyer working with the Open Constitution Initiative, said he believed that it was now much less likely that Mr Xu would be indicted. But Zhou Ze, one of Mr Xu’s lawyers, said: “We don’t know what will happen to the case.”

The authorities' unusual move indicates that the government is seeking to avoid unnecessary damage to its reputation from the recent crackdown.

Mr Xu had been taken from his home by police on July 29, but his employer had only received notice of his formal arrest on charges of tax evasion last Monday.

The Open Constitution Initiative was closed last month after tax authorities fined the group Rmb1.4m ($205,000, €143,000, £124,000), saying it had failed to pay its taxes. Many non-governmental groups in China choose to register as enterprises to avoid the difficulties of getting official approval as an NGO. This imposes a heavier tax burden on them and makes them vulnerable to accusations on accounting errors.

Mr Xu rose to prominence for his fight against detention without a legal basis and other cases where the state violates or fails to protect an individual’s rights.

Lawyers working with the Open Constitution Initiative have tried to sue for compensation on behalf of parents of children who died or fell ill from melamine-tainted milk powder.

If found guilty of tax evasion, Mr Xu could face a sentence of up to seven years.

Mr Tohti was detained the week after the July 5 race riots that killed close to 200 people, most of them members of the majority Han group, according to the government.

He has done consultancy work for the government before. On his blog, he had criticised the government’s economic and social policies in Xinjiang, the Uighur minority’s home region.

UPDATE ON RELEASE: "Beijing Frees Jailed Activist Xu Zhiyong," by Sky Canaves, The Wall Street Journal

August 23, 2009

BEIJING -- Chinese authorities unexpectedly freed from jail a prominent legal activist on Sunday after an increasingly vocal campaign against his detention by China's growing ranks of citizen activists.

Xu Zhiyong, a co-founder of the now shuttered legal-research and advocacy group, the Open Constitution Initiative, was taken from his home by police before dawn on July 29 and formally arrested for tax evasion three weeks later. The Beijing tax bureau had ordered the OCI to pay 1.4 million yuan (about $200,000) in back taxes on contributions, including hefty fines, a decision Mr. Xu was trying to appeal before he was detained.

Human-rights groups and legal experts said the tax charges were a pretext for jailing Mr. Xu and shutting down the group, which represented families of children sickened during last year's melamine-tainted-milk scandal, and also advocated against illegal detentions.

Mr. Xu said he didn't know the reason for his sudden release, but the public campaign "definitely could have had an influence." Speaking by phone, he said Zhuang Lu, another OCI staffer detained around the same time, also was released Sunday. Still, Mr. Xu said he might yet face prosecution.

Chinese Internet censors blocked Mr. Xu's name from search engines in mainland China. But activists managed to launch a campaign, largely online, to focus attention on the case.

The movement shows an "increasing awareness of the important role of law in society," says Li Fangping, one of Mr. Xu's lawyers.

After the OCI's Web site was shut down, other members of the group, a loose association of lawyers, academics and volunteers, relaunched the site on a server outside mainland China. Through Aug. 13, its online campaign had raised almost 850,000 yuan from mainland citizens to help pay the fines.

Another coalition, including bloggers and college students, started an offshore Web site dedicated to Mr. Xu's defense, Slogans on the site read, "Anyone can be Xu Zhiyong" and "tens of thousands of Zhiyongs are not in jail, but they are on the road to jail."

Joshua Rosenzweig, a senior researcher with the U.S.-based human-rights group Duihua Foundation, said Mr. Xu's release on bail indicated that authorities were treating him differently from political dissidents, who often are charged with more serious crimes of subversion.

"It shows the difference between this kind of case and a purely political case," Mr. Rosenzweig said. "Xu Zhiyong is not a dissident, unless you really stretch the definition of dissident."

Mr. Rosenzweig said the rare use of bail shows that the authorities "might be wavering" over Mr. Xu's case, although he doesn't rule out tax evasion and other charges.

The campaign for Mr. Xu attracted unusually wide support. "Many people who seldom talk about politics have come out" in support of Mr. Xu, says Jean Yim, a Ph.D. student in the sociology department at the University of Hong Kong. Ms. Yim and a friend organized a talk on Mr. Xu's case in Hong Kong on Saturday, which they made available to Internet users in mainland China via Twitter, and through video and audio files.

One computer programmer, who normally sells tech-geek-themed T-shirts on China's largest online shopping platform,, said he was moved by the unfair treatment of Mr. Xu to create an iron-on badge to sell to supporters, with all proceeds going toward Mr. Xu's legal defense. The programmer, who declined to be identified, said he had sold about 200 badges reading "Xu Zhiyong, True Man" before his Taobao account was suspended on Aug. 20 for selling prohibited items.

Wen Yunchao, a blogger from Guangzhou, urged people to send postcards to Mr. Xu's detention center calling for his release. Last month, Mr. Wen organized a similar postcard campaign on behalf of a fellow blogger detained by police in eastern China. The blogger was released after two weeks, though Mr. Wen says it is difficult to say whether the postcards had any direct impact on the outcome.

"What's important is for people to become aware and to participate," says Mr. Wen. "This promotes civil society."

UPDATE ON RELEASE: "Campaigning lawyer Xu Zhiyong released after arrest for tax evasion," by Jane Macartney, The Times

August 23, 2009

In an unusual departure by a judicial system that rarely sets free anyone taken into detention, the authorities today released one of China’s most pioneering advocates of legal rights only days after his formal arrest for tax evasion.

The detention around three weeks ago and arrest last week of lawyer Xu Zhiyong had been seen as part of a campaign by the Communist Party authorities to stifle dissent before the 60th anniversary on October 1 of the founding of Communist rule.

Speaking to The Times, the lawyer said: “I am really not clear as to why I have been released. It is still possible that I will face formal charges.”

The lawyer, whose clients have ranged from death-row clients to parents of babies who died or fell ill after drinking tainted milk powder last year, said: “Right now I feel incredibly moved by everything that has happened. I want to thank everyone who has worried about me since I was detained.”

Mr Xu, 36, is one of the most dogged human-rights lawyers in China and was taken from his home at dawn about three weeks ago after a crackdown on a non-governmental organisation that he co-founded to advance legal rights.

He said that his detention and arrest, which could still bring to an end one of the most brilliant legal careers in China if charges are filed, had not come as a complete surprise. “I had felt before that it was possible I could be arrested.”

Mr Xu may have expected to have been arrested for his legal work rather than for tax evasion.

Last month, government officials closed Gongmeng, also known as the Open Constitution Initiative, his legal aid and research group. The organisation worked on public interest law, addressing issues such as death penalty cases and the existence of unofficial "black jails".

Most recently, Gongmeng lawyers represented parents whose children fell ill last year after drinking milk contaminated with the chemical melamine. The tainted milk was blamed for the deaths of six babies and made nearly 300,000 other children ill.

The centre's closure came after the tax authorities said that the group faced a fine of 1.4 million yuan (£140,000) for failing to pay taxes. Mr Xu had been scheduled to meet tax officials on July 30, the day after he was detained. Colleagues say that formal notification of the unpaid taxes has yet to be issued, meaning that his arrest was a violation of due process.

The incarceration of Mr Xu had come amid a nationwide crackdown on activist lawyers and non-governmental organisations. The legal activist is prominent not only as a lawyer but as one of the few elected members of a Beijing district branch of the National People’s Congress (parliament). Representatives of Gongmeng have paid back about 700,000 yuan. Under Chinese law if the taxes are repaid a defendant can face only civil and not criminal charges.

Mr Xu gained prominence in 2003 with the landmark Sun Zhigang case in which a 27-year-old university graduate died after being beaten in police custody. Mr Sun had been detained under an extrajudicial system called custody and repatriation that gave police virtually unlimited authority to hold anyone if they did not have a residence permit for that area.

Mr Xu and fellow legal scholars petitioned the National People's Congress, questioning the constitutionality of the system, which was abolished later that year.

He faces a maximum seven-year sentence if formally charged with tax evasion.


Link to Associated Press Story
Link to Voice of America Story
August 23, 2009

China legal activist freed, but may face tax case
By JOE MCDONALD (AP) – 4 hours ago

BEIJING — An activist Chinese lawyer who was detained in a possible crackdown on dissent ahead of October's 60th anniversary of Communist rule was released Sunday, but he said authorities were investigating possible tax charges against him.

Xu Zhiyong co-founded a Beijing legal aid group that has tackled some of China's most politically sensitive cases, most recently representing parents of children sickened last year by chemical-tainted milk. Xu was detained July 29 and formally arrested Aug. 12 on charges of evading taxes.

Xu has been at the forefront of legal reform and public interest law in China, and has been a visiting scholar at Yale Law School in the United States several times.

He said he did not know whether authorities would proceed with a tax evasion case against his group, Gongmeng, or the Open Constitution Initiative.

"It is difficult to say," Xu told The Associated Press by telephone. He declined to give other details of his case or his detention.

His lawyer, Zhou Ze, said the case has yet to be sent to prosecutors.

"I think the tax evasion charge does not hold water," Zhou said. "We need to wait and see what will happen next."

Beijing appears to be trying to stifle possible dissent ahead of the Communist Party's celebration of its 60th anniversary in power Oct. 1.

In July, the government revoked the licenses of 53 lawyers in Beijing, many of them known for handling human rights and other sensitive cases.

Gongmeng was shut down in mid-July, and the Beijing tax bureau fined it 1.4 million yuan ($206,000) for failing to pay taxes.

Zhou said the case might involve accusations of failing to pay up to 200,000 yuan ($29,000) in taxes, but he said authorities have given no details.

Gongmeng lawyers represented parents in last year's tainted milk scandal. Six babies died and nearly 300,000 other children were sickened. The scandal led to an overhaul of China's dairy industry, but the government tried to block parents and activists from publicizing information about illnesses and complaints about authorities.

China Releases Prominent Human Rights Lawyer on Bail
By VOA News
23 August 2009

A leading Chinese human rights lawyer says he was released from detention Sunday, but still might face prosecution on charges of tax evasion.

Xu Zhiyong, co-founder of a legal-aid group known as the Open Constitution Initiative or Gongmeng, had been out of contact since security officials seized him from his home on July 29. He was formally arrested last Tuesday on charges of tax evasion.

Xu said Sunday he was released on bail pending trial.

Chinese authorities shut down the legal rights center more than a month ago for alleged nonpayment of taxes. Members of the group reported nearly two weeks later that Xu had been detained by police, and that they could not contact him.

The group has helped victims of China's tainted-milk scandal and offered assistance in human-rights cases. It also has issued a report criticizing the Chinese government's policies toward Tibet.

Rights groups say the latest developments are part of a widening crackdown on lawyers, rights activists and non-governmental organizations ahead of the 60th anniversary of the Chinese communist state.

Preparations are under way for a huge official celebration of the anniversary on October 1. Rights activists expect the government will try to prevent any public demonstration of dissent during the festivities.

China recently revoked the licenses of 53 Beijing lawyers, most of them prominent human-rights advocates. Amnesty International has condemned the crackdown on lawyers as a major blow to the human-rights defense movement in China.

In a widely quoted statement earlier this year, Xu said his Gongmeng group aims to help build the rule of law and advance Chinese society by objectively and independently studying human-rights protections, the situation in Tibet and other issues.

One of the government's main charges against Xu's group alleges that no taxes were paid on a $100,000 grant the Open Constitution Initiative received from Yale University. Xu has been a visiting scholar at Yale Law School on several occasions.

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Assistant to pioneering Chinese rights lawyer 'disappears'" by Tania Branigan, The Guardian

August 21, 2009

Office worker for Xu Zhiyong, who himself faces trial for tax evasion, has not been seen for three weeks.

Almost no one in China has heard of Zhuang Lu, which is hardly surprising. Plainly dressed and introverted, the 27-year-old office assistant completed her mundane daily tasks – booking tickets, paying bills – with minimum fuss. Then, three weeks ago, she disappeared.

Family and colleagues believe she is being held in a detention house in Beijing. Like her boss Xu Zhiyong, a prominent human rights lawyer who has fought a string of high-profile cases, she was taken from her home at dawn on 29 July by security officials. But unlike Xu's detention, which has made headlines internationally, her disappearance has gone unnoticed outside her immediate circle.

"Information about her has always been out. But because the main focus has been on Xu, not many people have noticed her case," said their colleague Yang Huawei.

Xu – who was formally arrested for tax evasion this week – is well known for his tenacious pursuit of sensitive cases such as deaths in custody. Shortly before his disappearance he was featured in Chinese Esquire. He co-founded the legal organisation Gongmeng, also known as the Open Constitution Initiative, which has helped the families of children made ill by tainted baby milk powder and issued a report criticising the handling of demonstrations in Tibetan areas.

In comparison, Zhuang's work at Gongmeng was essential but inconspicuous - the administrative grind without which no organisation can run. She is "thin and small, plainly-dressed, introverted, not talkative," wrote Teng Biao, another of the founders.

But though she appeared vulnerable to Teng, "one thing proved that she was not weak and maybe that is the most shining thing she did [at] Gongmeng," he added.

"In 2008, when summer was replacing spring, she was invited by police for a cup of tea. The national security people asked her to report on our work to them and told her that she would benefit. But Zhuang Lu refused. She told us about it. She had the courage and [they] must have been very angry and we are not sure whether today's 'serious result' has anything to do with them or not."

In his blog posting – since erased by censors – he described how she wept when officials came to shut the Gongmeng legal centre in mid-July.

"Such a gentle and honest girl was kidnapped by Big Brother without any legal justification," he added.

Xu's case comes amid a crackdown on activist lawyers. Zhuang's shows how others can be drawn into such investigations.

"I guess it is possible that they took her in the hope of getting some testimony from her against Xu," Teng told the Guardian.

Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, describes that as "standard operating procedure".

"It is also, of course, a way of putting pressure on Xu, because he is responsible not only for himself. Police like to make threats about consequences for relatives and people around [detainees] and he doesn't have family," Bequelin added.

"This is scaring people who work for NGOs. They are thinking it's not only the boss who can be taken away; officials can also go for the 'small' people."

Zhuang and Xu were due to meet the tax bureau on the day they disappeared. Gongmeng's problems began when authorities slapped a 1.2m yuan (£100,000) fine for unpaid taxes on it last month. Its founders say it paid slightly late but in full and points out that the penalty is five times larger than the tax bill. Staff who tried to pay off some of the fine after Xu's detention were told they could not do so because he had not signed papers to appoint them as legal representatives.

Xu has now been formally arrested, allowing him access to lawyers, but Zhuang is still in limbo. Staff at the detention centre where she is thought to be held told the Guardian they were too busy to speak when asked about her case.

Zhuang's father, who rushed to the capital when he heard of her detention, has returned home to southern China without authorising lawyers to act for her. Now, like her colleagues, he waits anxiously for her return.

"Can Words Set Xu Free?" by Gady Epstein, Forbes

August 21, 2009

BEIJING -- Do words really matter?

Candidate Barack Obama famously told Hillary Clinton that they do, and now we are about to find out exactly how much the president and secretary of state's words--and those of the new U.S. ambassador to China--matter to the Chinese government on human rights.

The Chinese government is in the midst of its most repressive crackdown on lawyers in the seven years since Hu Jintao took the helm of the Communist Party, forcing Obama administration officials to confront an issue they would rather have kept in the background before the president's first visit to China in November.

This week police formally arrested Xu Zhiyong, a highly respected legal scholar and elected legislator from the mainstream of China's legal rights movement, on dubious tax-evasion charges related to his legal services non-governmental organization, Gongmeng, which the government also shut down.

In February, a more outspoken crusader, Gao Zhisheng, disappeared into the unacknowledged custody of security forces. Some human rights groups and diplomats fear he may have been killed.

Xu and Gao are the bookends of a whole range of activist attorneys--legal "rights defenders"--who are under increasingly intense pressure from the Chinese authorities. The government threatens their livelihoods, then their freedom, and finally their lives. As chilling and disturbing as Gao's case is (see "The Nonexistent Case Of The Missing Lawyer"), many in the legal reform movement told themselves he was a radical, an outlier.

No one can say that about Xu, who was proud of playing by the government's own rules to achieve progress.

The problem was that Xu was advancing a cause, rule of law, that Chinese authorities have long avowed in writing but deliberately thwarted in practice. With Xu's arrest, security forces have signalled China's cadre of rights defenders that they have pushed the Communist Party far enough.

Now the U.S. government needs to send a message that this crackdown has gone too far. That means Ambassador Jon M. Huntsman Jr., who has just arrived in Beijing, will not have the luxury of a long honeymoon with his new interlocutors.

There is no doubt Huntsman will bring up Xu's case very soon--the only question is whether he chooses to do so immediately, and risk spoiling the festive ceremonial atmosphere of the first meeting with his hosts.

Does it matter when Huntsman makes his point, and how he makes it?

Yes and no.

The problem in dealing with China on human rights is that diplomatic pressure typically yields results only on a case-by-case basis. No matter when and how the message is delivered, the U.S. cannot hope to persuade Beijing to reverse its crackdown. That is the realistic limitation, the "no" in response to whether words matter.

But in fact words do matter in diplomacy, both practically and symbolically. Words are the tools of diplomacy, and can do the job when said at the right time by the right person. They can help set Xu free in advance of Obama's visit, which the White House and State Department are already trying to use as leverage to help the lawyer's case.

And even if these words do not secure the releases of Xu or Gao, or of the self-taught attorney Chen Guangcheng, or of the activists Hu Jia and Liu Xiaobo and Tan Zuoren, we know from the experience of imprisoned Soviet dissidents that the knowledge that they had the attention of the free nations of the world was a solace to them in captivity, and blunted the dehumanizing efforts of the regime that imprisoned them.

A diplomat's words also set the tone in relations, defining for the other side a nation's priorities. During her visit to China in February, when other problems dominated everyone's attention, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said publicly that although the U.S. should apply pressure on human rights, "our pressing on these issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis."

Clinton was speaking to the Chinese government then, not the people, but the people heard them. Her words certainly didn't change Chinese policy, didn't trigger or worsen the crackdown to come, but they remain disheartening to the people fighting for Xu's cause.

Now it is time for tougher words. Maybe not immediately--Huntsman's message will carry more weight if he doesn't come barreling through the front door with it--but very soon. Huntsman, Clinton and the president all should make clear how important Xu's case is to them.

They can't save all of China's lawyers with their words.

But they may be able to save one.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Release Xu Zhiyong And Others," by Voice of America

August 20, 2009

China continues to crack down on prominent lawyers and human rights activists and NGOs affiliated with them. Most recently, prosecutors have charged one of China's leading public interest lawyers, Xu Zhiyong, with tax evasion. If convicted, he could face 7 years in prison.

Mr. Xu, 36, is a founder of the Open Constitution Initiative, a nonprofit group that often takes on high-profile cases involving ordinary citizens' civil rights. It has challenged China's so-called "black jails," the illegal detention centers some local officials have reportedly used to detain and intimidate petitioning citizens.

The organization has also campaigned for the rights of migrant workers and death-row inmates, and helped parents of babies poisoned during last year's tainted milk scandal seek legal redress. The Chinese government shut down the Open Constitution Initiative center on July 17th and police arrested Mr. Xu on July 29th.

Many observers say the charges against Mr. Xu are politically motivated and part of a growing effort by security officials to shut down independent activism, especially groups funded from abroad. The Chinese government has blocked many foreign-based Web sites and social-networking services. It also disbarred about 50 lawyers earlier this year.

About the same time Mr. Xu was arrested, Chinese police raided the Beijing Yirenping Center, another non-governmental organization, which works to fight discrimination against Hepatitis B patients and HIV carriers. Authorities accused the NGO of illegal publishing.

In the meantime, Gao Zhisheng, one of China’s foremost human rights lawyers, was detained for a second time in February 2009 and has not been heard from since. Another of China's most prominent political dissidents Liu Xiaobo has been held virtually incommunicado in Beijing since December.

Chinese human rights activists should not be harassed, detained, or tortured by Chinese authorities for exercising their fundamental rights to freedom of expression. As President Barack Obama said, "Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state. ... An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Pioneering human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong faces trial in China" by Tania Branigan, The Guardian

August 18, 2009

Chinese authorities have formally arrested a pioneering lawyer, more than two weeks after security officials took him from his home at dawn. His lawyer warned today that he was likely to face a trial.

Xu Zhiyong, 36, is one of the best-known human rights lawyers in the country and co-founder of Gongmeng, a legal group that has dealt with some of the most sensitive cases in recent years. He is accused of tax evasion and, if found guilty, could face up to seven years in prison.

"It's not an indictment. But in the usual run of things, I expect the procuratorate will take the case to court, and the court is very unlikely to reject their case," Xu's lawyer, Li Fangping, told Reuters.

Amnesty International alleged in a statement: "The charges of tax evasion are a simple ploy to shut down the Open Constitution Initiative [Gongmeng]."

It added that Zhuang Lu, a staff member detained at the same time as Xu, had also been arrested.

Gongmeng has taken on high-profile cases, including the parents of children made ill by tainted baby milk formula, and issued a report criticising the handling of unrest across the Tibetan plateau.

Xu's arrest comes amid a broader crackdown on activist lawyers, in which more than 50 have lost their licences to practise, and the curbing of other dissent in the run-up to the 60th anniversary of Communist party rule in October this year.

"Chinese Public-Interest Lawyer Charged Amid Crackdown" by Michael Wines, The New York Times

August 18, 2009

BEIJING — Prosecutors have charged one of China’s leading public-interest lawyers, Xu Zhiyong, with tax evasion, his lawyer said on Tuesday, continuing a government crackdown on this nation’s small band of activist lawyers and scholars that has lasted months.

Mr. Xu, 36, is a founder of the Open Constitution Initiative, known in Chinese as Gongmeng, a nonprofit group that often has taken on high-profile cases involving citizens’ civil rights. The government shut down the organization’s Gongmeng legal center on July 17, three days after accusing it of tax violations, and the police seized Mr. Xu on July 29.

In an interview on Tuesday, his lawyer, Zhou Ze, said Mr. Xu was formally charged on Aug. 12. Mr. Xu could face seven years in prison if he is tried and convicted. The prosecutors now must seek an indictment, but that is widely considered a formality.

The government’s main accusation is that Mr. Xu’s group failed to pay taxes on a $100,000 grant from Yale University that was earmarked for the legal center. But human rights advocates and foreign political analysts agree that the charges are politically inspired, part of what seems to be a growing effort by security officials to shut down independent activism and especially activism that is supported with foreign funds.

The government has moved this year to block many foreign-based Web sites and social-networking services used by Chinese activists and, often, by Chinese citizens. It also has taken action against a host of activist scholars and lawyers, effectively disbarring about 50 lawyers earlier this summer. Gao Zhisheng, whose aggressive legal campaigns earned him a reputation as a gadfly, has not been heard from since being taken into custody more than six months ago.

A number of activist lawyers have been beaten or harassed by unidentified assailants while working this year on cases. And one of China’s most prominent political dissidents, Liu Xiaobo, has been held virtually incommunicado in a suburban Beijing detention center since December.

Separately, the Beijing financial publication Economic Observer reported on Tuesday that the government had begun a broad inquiry into the so-called resident representative offices of foreign-based enterprises — in essence, offices that many foreign groups, including many charities and nonprofit organizations, establish on Chinese soil.

The newspaper quoted an unnamed source as saying that the government was drafting new regulations governing the offices and that many of the existing offices were suspected of violating Chinese law.

The current rules exempt the offices from paying taxes but also bar them from conducting business activities. The unnamed source was quoted as saying that many offices have flouted that prohibition, while others are guilty of lesser violations like failing to report address changes or renew expired registrations.

The report stated that investigators had already begun visiting some resident representative offices. In at least some instances, the investigators have been accompanied by the police, Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with the Hong Kong office of Human Rights Watch, said in an interview on Tuesday.

The government’s move against Gongmeng and Mr. Xu, he said, has sent a chill sweeping over China’s activist organizations, in large part because Gongmeng is widely seen as one of the most scrupulous groups working to expand the rule of law. Indeed, Mr. Xu, a professor at Beijing’s University of Posts and Telecommunications, has been an elected member of a local governing body, the People’s Congress in Beijing’s Haidian district, since 2003.

“He was doing everything aboveboard,” said Mr. Bequelin, who called Mr. Xu “the voice of moderation” in public-interest legal circles. “If he goes down, who is safe?”

"Chinese activist arrested for tax evasion" by Kathrin Hille, The Financial Times

August 18, 2009

Xu Zhiyong, a Chinese legal scholar and aid campaigner, has been formally arrested on tax evasion charges, in the latest step in Beijing’s crackdown on legal activists.

Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, where Mr Xu teaches law, was notified of his official arrest, said Zhou Ze, Mr Xu’s lawyer. “This letter was received,” said a colleague of Mr Xu’s who asked not to be identified.

Under China’s opaque legal system, it is unclear whether Mr Xu will be prosecuted. But his formal arrest makes it more likely that he will go to trial. As a leading proponent of legal reform in China, his case could serve as a test for how committed Beijing is to continue developing the rule of law.

Mr Xu was taken away from his home at dawn on July 29 shortly after the government closed down the Open Constitution Initiative, a non-governmental group co-founded and run by him which provides legal assistance in public interest cases.

The centre was closed after the authorities fined the group Rmb1.4m, saying it had failed to pay its taxes. Mr Xu’s detention came a day before he was due for a hearing on that case.

Mr Xu became widely known in 2003 when he campaigned against China’s extralegal detention of people staying in a city they lack a residential permit for. Mr Xu called upon the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, to check whether the system was constitutional after Sun Zhigang, a university graduate, died following a beating while in police custody. Later that year, that form of detention was abolished.

Since then, Mr Xu has taken on numerous public interest cases. Most recently, his centre’s lawyers represented parents of children who died or fell ill after consuming melamine-tainted milk powder.

If found guilty of tax evasion, Mr Xu could face a sentence of up to seven years. Lawyers working with the centre said the tax evasion charges were part of Beijing’s broader attempt to harass activist lawyers and legal aid groups.

Open Constitution was set up as a company because aid groups that try to register as nonprofits often face insurmountable administrative hurdles in China. However, the alternative exposes them to government demands to declare tax as a for-profit business.

Earlier this month, centre organizers called for public donations and tried to settle the fine. However, they said this proved difficult because tax authorities refused to issue necessary paperwork and the bank accounts of the centre and Mr Xu were frozen.

Mr Zhou said he was allowed to visit Mr Xu late last week in a Beijing detention facility where Mr Xu remained as of Tuesday.

"Chinese Legal Rights Group Blocked from Paying Its Fines" by NTDTV

August 17, 2009

Chinese legal scholar Xu Zhiyong is still in detention for supposedly violating tax law. He’s part of an organization called The Open Constitution Initiative, or Gongmeng in Chinese. They take on welfare and human rights cases.

Chinese authorities are demanding that Gongmeng pay fines for overdue taxes. But now authorities are making it hard for them.

A report by the organization Chinese Human Rights Defenders says that Gongmeng asked supporters for donations to help pay the fines. But authorities have frozen Gongmeng’s bank account—and that makes it impossible for them to pay.

Meanwhile, Xu is still being detained.

Recent months have seen an increased number of arrests and trials of activists and lawyers in China.

"Chinese Lawyers "Disappear" After Seeking Justice" by NTDTV

August 17, 2009

It's a chain of events that's becoming familiar: Chinese authorities are causing well-known lawyers to “disappear.”

Beijing attorney Xu Zhiyong was detained last month on alleged tax issues, and he hasn’t been seen since. He upset authorities by taking on cases involving civil rights violations and unfair imprisonment.

Xu had always fought for justice within the bounds of China’s legal system and constitution. But now he himself has been abducted and detained.

[Gao Wenqian, Senior Policy Advisor, Human Rights in China]:
“This judgment against Xu Zhiyong that the Chinese government is preparing is in fact not a judgment on Xu, but on the very nature of the Chinese legal system... The methods they are using against these civil rights groups really just display the cynicism with which they use these terms like 'rule of law.'”

But rule of law is precisely what Xu and many other lawyers are seeking. They’re involved in what's being called a “legal rights” movement. Some lawyers have been disbarred, some imprisoned.

Rights attorney Gao Zhisheng was arrested and tortured several times. He’s defended clients like Falun Gong practitioners and house Christians—two groups persecuted by the Chinese regime. He went missing again in February this year and his current whereabouts are unknown.

In 2006, legal rights activist Chen Guangcheng was sentenced to four years in prison. He had drawn attention to the plight of victims of China’s forced abortion program.

And in 2007, six lawyers from top Beijing law firms defended a Falun Gong practitioner—arguing that the Communist Party had violated her freedom of belief as guaranteed by the constitution. As a result, authorities intimidated them, and even abducted several of them, including prominent rights lawyer Teng Biao.

Clive Ansley works with Lawyers' Rights Watch Canada, an organization that supports lawyers whose rights are threatened in their home countries.

[Clive Ansley, China Country Monitor, Lawyers' Rights Watch Canada]:
"They see them [these lawyers] as a very real threat, and for very good reason, because these are people who genuinely believe in the rule of law. And the rule of law is just basically incompatible with political monopoly of power by a single party."

Just days ago, China’s justice minister announced that all lawyers should serve the Communist Party first, and that law firms would soon receive “Party liaisons.” Some see this as part of the Party’s attempt to control lawyers—and stifle dissent from within the legal profession.

Lawyer Clive Ansley says the Party feels it has no choice.

[Clive Ansley, China Country Monitor, Lawyers' Rights Watch]:
"The implementation of genuine rule of law, meaning that the law is the ultimate authority, would be the end of the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly of power."

"Chinese Authorities Remove Activist from Internet" by NTDTV

August 14, 2009

Now turning to the human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong who has been detained by Chinese authorities for alleged tax offences. It appears that now the Communist regime is attempting to erase him from public discussion.

Xu’s blog on Hong Kong-based has been deleted.

And a search on the Chinese version of Google using the simplified Chinese characters for Xu’s name shows only this message.

On July 17, authorities shut down the office of Gongmeng, a.k.a. the Open Constitution Initiative—a legal support center that Xu co-founded. And now they’ve shut down Gongmeng’s website, too—this page is all that’s left.

In addition, a blog forum discussing Gongmeng has been closed since Tuesday.

Many netizens are angry about authorities’ attempts to stop discussions about Xu. One 17-year-old Hong Kong student posted this open letter on Facebook to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao—she’s asking him why the regime is treating Xu so cruelly.