Ananth Krishnan

BEIJING: A Beijing court met on Thursday to discuss revoking the licences of two well-known lawyers, in a case seen by the legal community here as reflecting tightening restrictions on lawyers who handle politically-sensitive issues. Tang Jitian and Liu Wei, two Beijing-based lawyers, stand accused of “disrupting court procedures” and face disbarment after representing a follower of the Falun Gong, a religious group that was banned by the Chinese government in 1999.

The Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice said they had “interfered with the litigation process” during a hearing on April 27, 2009, in Luzhou, Sichuan province, and that their licences would be revoked as an “administrative punishment”. But the lawyers say they were prevented from defending their client as per the norms of the Constitution, and allege that the court violated legal procedures by allowing unidentified individuals to threaten them and film the proceedings.

“We were not permitted to question the evidence, analyse what constituted the crime, analyse the nature of the defendant's actions and analyse the applicability of the law,” they said in a written statement.

In the statement, they said they “chose to leave the court peacefully and presented their defence opinion in writing as they left the court” after the judge reportedly prevented them from completing their statements.

If their licenses are revoked, this will mark the first ever instance of lawyers in China being banned from practicing without having a criminal conviction.

Increasing restrictions

Two lawyers The Hindu spoke to said they believed the case against the lawyers was only the latest of a number of increasing restrictions put in place this past year, on law-firms taking up cases the authorities view as politically sensitive.

The curbs, however, come against a trend of greater judicial independence and legal freedoms, since reforms were launched in 2001.

“If they are banned, it will be a major blow to legal rights in China, and a signal that taking up such cases can come at a huge cost,” said one lawyer, asking not to be identified. This case follows last July's closing down of an influential legal rights group called Gongmeng, or the Open Constitution Initiative. It was accused of tax irregularities, and its founder, Xu Zhiyong, was arrested and subsequently released on bail. Gongmeng rose to prominence as the country's most well-known legal rights advocacy group after it took up the case of Sun Zhigang, a graduate student who was beaten to death in a detention centre in 2003.

The case resulted in a landmark reform of detention laws. Last year, the group was representing victims of a milk scandal which left more than 3 lakh children ill.

Tian Qizhuang, Gongmeng's executive director, told The Hindu in an interview last year he believed the closing down of the group on tax charges was part of a larger attempt by authorities to curb law firms who take up “sensitive cases”. “We don't know if they want to close us all down forever, or punish us for individual cases,” he said. “We don't know what the government's goal is, or what our future will be.”

He said then he hoped that the curbs were only temporary, coinciding with the 60th anniversary celebrations of the People's Republic of China on October 1 last year. But half a year on, the restrictions are still in place.