A United Nations (UN) human rights expert on Wednesday (16 Dec) expressed dismay at the shocking treatment of human rights defenders and lawyers in China, saying they continue to be charged, detained, disappeared, and tortured five years after the start of a crackdown on the profession under the guise of national security concerns.
“Since the so-called ‘709 crackdown’ began on 9 July 2015, the profession of human rights lawyer has been effectively criminalised in China,” said Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.
Ms Lawlor cited the recent arrest and enforced disappearance of human rights defender and lawyer Chang Weiping as emblematic of the Government’s ongoing efforts to silence lawyers who have been outspoken about the deterioration of human rights in China.
In January 2020, Mr Weiping was forcibly disappeared for 10 days in “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL) by security officials in Baoji city on suspicion of “subversion of state power”, and his law licence was annulled.
The lawyer posted a video online in October, describing the torture and ill-treatment he was allegedly subjected to during his detention in RSDL, and the psychological and physical sequelae he has sustained as a result.
Days later, on 22 October, Mr Weiping was detained by security officials in Baoji city and placed once again in RSDL, in retaliation for his video. Since then, the defender’s whereabouts remain unknown, his lawyers have been unable to contact him and no charges have been brought against him.
“In a shocking display of disregard for human rights, the authorities have re-arrested a human rights defender for courageously sharing his experience and denouncing human rights violations, and attempted to portray him as a threat to national security,” said Ms Lawlor.
“The fact that the lawyers initially hired by Mr Weiping’s family to represent him have both withdrawn from his case due to pressure they received from officials is also telling of the gravity and scale of the situation faced by human rights defenders and lawyers in China.”
The UN expert expressed concern at reports indicating that other human rights defenders and lawyers, some who have been arrested and detained since the 2015 crackdown and subsequently released, have reportedly faced so-called security measures in the days before Human Rights Day on 10 December.
She also expressed concerns regarding the harassment of the families of human rights lawyers who are disbarred and detained. Families of human rights defenders and lawyers are routinely threatened, summoned for questioning, subjected to surveillance by the authorities, and socio-economically affected on account of the loss of income to the household.
Ms Lawlor went on to highlight the inherent contradiction in targeting lawyers under the pretext of protecting the rule of law.
“I respect and appreciate the importance of safeguarding national security and the right of every Government to do so. However, the lives and livelihoods of its citizens and their human rights should not be the cost of doing so,” she asserted.
“Fundamental human rights are not a threat to any Government or society, and neither are the individuals who defend those rights. I urge the Chinese authorities to release at once Chang Weiping and all other detained and disappeared human rights defenders.”