22 April 2019
Activists in Hong Kong demonstrate for the release of rights lawyers detained in the Chinese mainland. Photo:
Activists in Hong Kong demonstrate for the release of rights lawyers detained in the Chinese mainland. Photo:

Day of Endangered Lawyers: Making sure they’re not forgotten

As families in Hong Kong gathered to celebrate the Lantern Festival on Sunday, our thoughts were on civil rights activists and rights lawyers who are still behind bars or under house arrest in the mainland since the so-called “709 crackdown on dissent” that took place in July 2015.

In May 2015, more than 600 mainland lawyers petitioned the authorities to release 20 civil rights activists who were arrested after they rallied to the defense of the family of Xu Chunhe, a civilian man who had fallen victim to the excessive force used by mainland police and died in Heilongjiang province.

However, rather than addressing their demand, the mainland authorities used their petition as a pretext to mount an all-out crackdown on dissent from July 9 2015.

Within two months, more than 300 mainland rights lawyers, law firm staffers and human rights activists who had been committed to defending the rights of dissidents were rounded up and detained by the police on charges ranging from instigating subversion and endangering national security to disturbing public order. They were held without a proper trial.

To make things worse, many detainees were subjected to inhumane treatment in jail such as torture or solitary confinement.

Almost two years on, many of them have either remained in custody or virtually become unaccounted for. As a result, hundreds of families are separated. Many of the victims’ families are tormented by the fact that they might not be able to see their loved ones again.

In Hong Kong, during the Occupy Movement in 2014, some pro-democracy lawyers and I joined together to form a voluntary legal team to provide legal advice and assistance to those who were arrested by the police during the movement. What we did no doubt has rattled the cage of those in power.

However, unlike our mainland counterparts, we are lucky enough to be spared the apprehension about being taken away by law enforcement authorities in the middle of the night because Hong Kong remains a society governed by the rule of law under which our civil rights are guaranteed, at least for now.

Jan. 24 was the “Day of Endangered Lawyers”, a memorial day founded by Dutch rights lawyer Hans Gaasbeek in 1977 to commemorate liberal lawyers in Spain who were subjected to brutal persecution under General Franco’s dictatorship.

Since 1977, each year the Day of Endangered Lawyers has focused on a particular country and drawn international attention to its human rights issues. This time, that country was China.

There is very little we can do to help the detained lawyers and civil rights activists in the mainland but by continuing to keep an eye on their situation and drawing international attention to their ordeal, we can at least make sure they are not forgotten.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 10

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legco member representing the Legal functional constituency (2012-2016) and a founding member of Civic Party

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