BEIJING — Twenty prominent lawyers and jurists from Europe, North America, Australia and Pakistan on Monday urged mainland China leader Xi Jinping to release a dozen Chinese lawyers and legal assistants held in detention in an open letter published in the UK newspaper The Guardian.
In the letter, the legal professionals, predominantly from Western countries, expressed worries that the mainland Chinese lawyers have been denied legal counsel since their July detention.
They also said they feared that without legal representation the Chinese lawyers and legal assistants could be “at high risk of torture or other cruel and inhumane treatments.”
China has arrested six rights lawyers and legal assistants on suspicion of state subversion, and three more on suspicion of inciting state subversion. One legal assistant was arrested on suspicion of helping destroy evidence. Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group said several more lawyers remain missing.
The lawyers have sought to use China’s own laws to hold officials accountable or to protect citizens’ rights, but Beijing says they are trying to sabotage the judicial system with improper activism.
Since July, more than 300 lawyers, legal assistants, staff members of law firms, and social activists have been detained and interrogated.
Most have been released, but some of the most prominent rights lawyers have been arrested, including Wang Yu, who defended one of the five women who became known as the “Feminist Five.” They were detained last March after they planned to hand out flyers against sexual harassment in several Chinese cities in a case that drew international scrutiny.
The lawyers are known to have taken up some of the most contentious cases in China, often involving petitioners who have grievances with local governments, practitioners of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong, or political dissidents.
State media say the lawyers have colluded with social activists and used social media to put undue pressures on local courts. The public security agency called them a “major criminal gang.”
Their arrests have drawn international attention, as shown by the latest open letter signed by heads of bar associations, legal scholars and lawyers.