Chinese authorities have threatened to end the careers of two lawyers who assisted 12 activists who tried to flee Hong Kong for Taiwan last August, 10 of whom were given jail terms by a Chinese court last week.
Ren Quanniu – who also represented the Wuhan citizen journalist Zhang Zhan – and Lu Siwei received notices from local departments of justice on Monday that authorities intended to revoke their licences and they had three days to arrange for a defence hearing.
Accusing each of violating regulations, the authorities cited Ren’s handling of a 2018 case relating to Falun Gong practitioners, and said Lu had made “improper remarks on the internet”. The lawyers believe they are being targeted for their recent work.
In a statement, Ren said his office was raided on Monday by more than a dozen masked individuals claiming to be from the Henan department of justice. He rejected the accusations as a “shameless frame-up” and professional persecution, and demanded the authorities withdraw their action and apologise.
Lu, whose social media accounts have been blocked, accused officials of abusing their power and said he would arrange for a hearing. He urged officials to build a better relationship with lawyers, or they would “certainly be dropping a rock on their own feet”.
The families of the Hong Kong defendants, noting the timing, said the disciplinary action against Ren and Lu was “obviously revenge” and designed to intimidate others.
“For their daring to go against the powers that be, and persistence in upholding the rights of ‘the 12’, the authorities have resorted to ending their professional career and cutting off their livelihoods,” they said in a statement.
“The Chinese authorities are using the case of Lu and Ren as an example to threaten other human right lawyers, such that no one else would dare to participate in politically sensitive cases. Thus the last obstacle hindering the Chinese authorities from persecuting dissidents at will, using the law as an excuse, is removed.”
The high-profile convictions of Zheng and the Hong Kongers drew international condemnation and shone a spotlight on China’s notoriously opaque legal system, which routinely has conviction rates of about 99% and is frequently used against dissidents and human rights lawyers.
Zhang was arrested for “picking quarrels and causing trouble” over her reports from the city of Wuhan during its 76-day lockdown last year. She was restrained and force-fed in detention after she went on hunger strike, and maintained her innocence, her lawyer had said. She was sentenced to four years in jail.
The 10 Hong Kongers were among a group of 12 who were detained by Guangdong coastguards in August while attempting to flee to Taiwan by boat. They were held incommunicado in a Shenzhen detention centre, and denied access to lawyers hired by their families, including Ren and Lu.
Last week, two minors in the group were returned to Hong Kong custody as the other 10 were sentenced to jail terms of between seven months and three years.
The China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group called for an immediate reversal of the planned revocations.
“In the process of advancing the rule of law, human rights lawyers speak for the grassroots of society, and the cases they represent are in line with moral and legal principles, but they often become the targets of retaliation by official departments,” it said.
Chinese authorities have a history of targeting human rights lawyers, including the mass roundup and interrogation of about 250 in 2015, some of whom remain in detention or were re-detained. Last month, a court refused to hear an appeal against the four-year sentence for one lawyer, Yu Wensheng, who had publicly called for constitutional reforms including multi-candidate elections.