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In China, lawyers fighting for justice routinely harassed

BEIJING—China says it's slowly moving toward the rule of law, but the curious fates of two lawyers show how injustice and lawlessness prevail.

The lawyers could hardly face more dissimilar situations. One, a blind lawyer without formal education, has been placed under house arrest. Round-the-clock guards bar him from leaving his provincial home. The other lawyer has the opposite problem. Guards bar him from entering his Beijing apartment. He's been locked out onto the streets.

The result is the same. Lawyers viewed as troublesome, or those who vigorously toil on civil rights or criminal cases, can face obstacles unknown in the West. They're beaten, disbarred, threatened and otherwise harassed. With surprising frequency, they follow their clients into the maw of China's prison system.

On the surface, China has the scaffolding of a functioning judiciary, with prosecutors, law schools, a tiered court system and even occasional jury trials. Lawsuits by angry consumers and wronged business owners have soared in number.

But scholars say there's less than meets the eye on protections of basic civil and legal freedoms. The presumption of guilt looms over all those who are accused of crimes. On sensitive matters, Communist Party cadres hover over the judiciary and pull the levers of power.

China's legal system works in two parts: the readily recognizable system that includes courts and prosecutors, and a Communist Party side that's "a low-visibility and nontransparent organization that envelops the formal system," said Jerome A. Cohen, a New York University law professor who's studied China's courts for decades.

Lawyers who defend accused criminals are viewed with particular suspicion. Some 70 percent of accused criminals never find lawyers to defend them.

But any lawyer can become a target under vague laws invoking national security.

"There are many unreasonable or bad laws in China right now. The best thing a lawyer can do is to work skillfully and carefully within the system," said Mo Shaoping, a veteran criminal lawyer who's evaded arrest.

That's hard to do. China's lawyers routinely are accused of wrongdoing. The Law Journal, a professional publication, said earlier this year that "at least 500 lawyers" in China were detained, indicted or otherwise charged from 1997 to 2002, the most recent period for which figures were given.

In some cases, the harassment they endure is outside the law. That's the case with the two lawyers who've been locked in or out of their homes.

A slight thread connects them.

One of the men, Chen Guangcheng, is a blind, self-educated—or "barefoot"—lawyer who cast an international spotlight last summer on a grisly campaign to force thousands of women to undergo abortions or sterilization in Linyi, Shandong province, and brought victims together to sue for their rights.

Thugs have stood guard outside Chen's home near Linyi since he was placed under de facto house arrest Aug. 11. City officials have taken away his computer and severed his phone line.

"He has been beaten, the last time pretty severely, blood coming out of his temple," said Cohen, who's been involved with the lawyers who are working on Chen's case.

China's national family-planning office said it rejected the use of brutal tactics in carrying out family-planning policies, but did nothing to stop Linyi officials from harassing Chen or confining him. Local officials saw his accusations as embarrassing, and decided to take retribution.

A number of lawyers from across China came to Chen's defense. Among them was Li Subin, a 50-year-old former army officer and lifelong Communist.

When Li, who owns an apartment in a suburb of northern Beijing, went to Linyi with other lawyers to speak to Chen in early October, thugs confronted them.

"I escaped with the help of villagers but the other two lawyers got beaten," Li said. "They abused the law in broad daylight."

Li, an activist who routinely sues the government on behalf of aggrieved citizens, has particular reason to sympathize with Chen's plight.

In late September, shortly after receiving an offer to work for a Beijing law firm that was taking on Chen's case, Li found new locks on the doors to his modern 14th-floor apartment. Guards were posted outside.

"They said, `You don't live here. We don't know you.' Actually, I had lived there for one year," Li said. Police ignored his complaints. Li now wanders the streets, sometimes sleeping at friends' homes, at other times sleeping in the streets.

Even lawyers who say they follow the letter of the law can find themselves suddenly unable to pursue their livelihood, or even thrown in jail.

The chief of the Beijing law firm that was hiring Li, Gao Zhisheng, was notified Nov. 4 that the Beijing Justice Bureau had suspended his firm's license. Officials who visited the firm gave several bureaucratic reasons. Gao said they also tried to pressure him by threatening his wife, telling her "you should take care of your child."

"The situation of Chinese lawyers defending civil rights is not only difficult but dangerous. I took these sensitive cases because there is no other lawyer in China willing to do it," Gao said.

One of the "barefoot" lawyers who's working under Gao, Yang Maodong, also known by the name Guo Feixiong, was arrested in mid-September for helping villagers in Taishi, southern Guangdong province, recall an elected mayor who was accused of corruption. Officials haven't officially said what kinds of charges they're holding Guo on.

Other lawyers reassure officials that they aren't attempting to use the legal system to destabilize the government, and exercise large amounts of caution.

"We try our best not to leave any pigtails for the government to pull," said Zhang Xingshui of Beijing's Kingdom Law Firm, which takes on sensitive cases.

Even so, lawyers such as Zhang are on edge. Earlier this year, his car was sideswiped on the street. "I suspect that it was to bring pressure on me," he said.

Li, who's spent more than 50 days trying to get into his apartment, has grown bitter about the prospects of fighting for the rule of law in China.

"If you choose to seek justice, speak truth and fight for the disadvantaged, then you will lead a miserable life," Li said.

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(Knight Ridder special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-LAWYERS

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