Chinese Authorities Detain Prominent Human Rights Lawyers

April 14, 2011

Within a span of one week in February 2011, authorities in Beijing municipality and Guangzhou, Guangdong province, detained five prominent human rights lawyers, and, in late February or early March 2011, detained another human rights lawyer in Shanghai, as well. The lawyers remain incommunicado and their current whereabouts are unclear. Their detentions come amid a broader crackdown on scores of advocates, bloggers, and writers that began in February in a campaign that appears related to official sensitivity over recent protests in the Middle East and North Africa and to an anonymous online call for so-called "Jasmine Revolution" protests within China. The underlying reasons for the detention of the lawyers are not clear.

Chinese Authorities Detain Human Rights Lawyers

Chinese authorities reportedly have detained six prominent human rights lawyers—Teng Biao, Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong, Liu Shihui, Li Tiantian, and Tang Jingling—in late February or early March 2011 in what appears to be part of a broader crackdown against rights advocates, artists, bloggers, and writers. Information on the circumstances surrounding the lawyer detentions is limited—according to foreign media and NGOs the lawyers remain incommunicado and the current whereabouts of at least five of them are not known. A March 11 New York Times (NYT) article noted that the crackdown occurred as an anonymous online call for "Jasmine Revolution" protests within China appeared on a Chinese-language Web site and follows the annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. The NYT article said critics described the crackdown as one of the harshest in years. Prominent Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Missing The following are summaries of each of the lawyers' detentions. For more details, click on the lawyer's name to access case information compiled in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China's Political Prisoner Database.

  • Tang Jitian—Chinese police detained Beijing-based lawyer Tang Jitian on February 16, after he attended a meeting to discuss the ongoing "soft detention" of the self-trained legal advocate Chen Guangcheng. Authorities reportedly searched Tang's residence. (Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), 2 March 11). His current whereabouts are unclear. Tang is a Beijing-based human rights lawyer that has participated in the rights defense of "sensitive clients, including Falun Gong practitioners. In April 2010, the Beijing Municipal Justice Bureau permanently revoked Tang Jitian's lawyer's license in connection to his defense of a Falun Gong practitioner in 2009 (Human Rights in China (HRIC), 7 May 10).
  • Teng Biao—Beijing police summoned and detained lawyer and university lecturer Teng Biao on February 19. Police reportedly searched his residence and confiscated property, including two computers, political books, documentaries, and photos of Chen Guangcheng. Public security officials told family members that Teng was being held at the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau. Teng's family did not receive any official notification of detention (HRIC, 23 February 11). Teng is a Beijing-based human rights lawyer and lecturer at China University of Political Science and Law. He acted as legal counsel for Chen Guangcheng in 2006. Authorities previously detained Teng in 2008, in response to his criticism that linked China's human rights conditions to the 2008 Summer Olympics.
  • Jiang Tianyong―Police in Beijing detained lawyer Jiang Tianyong on February 19, at his brother's residence (HRIC, 23 February 11). Police officials reportedly searched his residence and confiscated property, including his laptop computer and Internet access card, that evening. His current whereabouts are unclear. Jiang is a Beijing-based human rights lawyer who has represented defendants in "sensitive" cases, including those involving Falun Gong, HIV/AIDS, and human rights advocates. In May 2010, authorities detained Jiang at the Beijing Capital International Airport as he attempted to board a flight to the United States.
  • Liu Shihui―Unidentified assailants reportedly beat and injured lawyer Liu Shihui on February 20, while he waited for a bus to People's Park, one of the locations designated as a site for "Jasmine Revolution" protests (CHRD, 23 February 11). According to the March 11 NYT article, authorities detained Liu in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. His whereabouts are unclear. Liu is a Guangzhou-based human rights lawyer. In 2010, authorities failed to renew the professional licenses of several human rights lawyers, including Liu's, during an annual review process.
  • Tang Jingling―Public security officials in Guangzhou detained lawyer Tang Jingling on February 22 (HRIC, 23 February 11). His current whereabouts are unclear. Chinese authorities have previously targeted the Guangzhou-based human rights lawyer for his legal work on behalf of Taishi villagers and Chinese legal advocate Guo Feixiong.
  • Li Tiantian―According to the March 11 NYT article, authorities detained Shanghai-based lawyer Li Tiantian in February or early March 2011. Her current whereabouts are unclear.

Arbitrary Detentions: Chinese Law and International Legal Standards

International law generally prohibits arbitrary detention. Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) provides that "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile." According to Article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), no one should be subjected to arbitrary and extralegal arrests or detentions: "Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law." China signed the ICCPR in 1998 and has on multiple occasions expressed its intent to ratify the instrument.

According to Section IV of the May 2000 Working Group on Arbitrary Detention Fact Sheet No. 26, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) defines the deprivation of personal liberty to be "arbitrary" if it meets one of the following criteria: (1) there is clearly no legal basis for the deprivation of liberty; (2) an individual is deprived of his liberty for having exercised rights guaranteed under the UDHR and ICCPR; or (3) there is grave non-compliance with fair trial standards set forth in the UDHR and other international human rights instruments.

While information on the detentions is limited, the detentions may meet the first criteria above for arbitrary detention. The detentions appear to have "no legal basis for the deprivation of liberty" given that the lawyers have been held for weeks without formal charges. Such a situation would appear to be inconsistent with certain Chinese domestic legal protections. Article 37 of China's Constitution, for instance, provides that unlawful detention or deprivation or restriction of personal freedom of citizens by unlawful means is prohibited. According to Article 64 of the Criminal Procedure Law, Chinese authorities are generally required, within 24 hours of the detention, to notify suspect's family members of the reasons for detention and the place of custody, except in instances when such notification would hinder an investigation or when there is no way to notify them. Additionally, the detention of lawyers, including that of Tang Jitian, may meet the second criteria for arbitrary detentions above, if they have been detained in connection to exercising the right of freedom of association, as guaranteed by Article 20 of the UDHR and ICCPR, or freedom of expression, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the UDHR and ICCPR. The detentions, also, appear to violate the protections established in the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment (Body of Principles), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 9, 1988 (see UN General Assembly Resolution A/Res/43/173). Principle 2 of the Body of Principles provides that, "Arrest, detention or imprisonment shall only be carried out strictly in accordance with the provisions of the law and by competent officials or persons authorized for that purpose."

For more information on Chinese human rights lawyers and defenders, see pp. 193-196 of Section III―Access to Justice in the 2010 Annual Report. For more information on arbitrary detentions, see pp. 92-96 of Section II―Criminal Justice.