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China: Lawyers for Murder Suspects Detained Under Controversial Law

The detention of four criminal defense lawyers in Guangxi province early this month on charges of witness tampering has angered lawyers across China. Luo Sifang, Liang Wucheng, Yang Zhonghan and Yang Zaixin, each from different law firms, had previously been hired to represent four residents of Beihai accused of killing a man in late 2009 and throwing his body in the ocean.

The four defendants had been involved earlier that evening in a street fight with the deceased, among others, but three witnesses were able to provide an alibi at the time of the murder. At least that's what they told the four lawyers now being held in Beihai. Presenting a version of the events in court which differed from official statements taken earlier by police amounted to withdrawal of a confession, giving this case something in common that of Li Zhuang's.

Detained lawyer Yang Zaixin's business card

Detained lawyer Yang Zaixin's business card

Then the witnesses for the case were detained, and police started missing deadlines such as informing family members that the four lawyers had even been detained, or letting them meet.

Once police took on the lawyers, media from around China began reporting on the number of large holes which quickly appeared when initial confessions given to police were held up against details in the case. For example, the confession hinged on the four defendants’ saying that they had killed the deceased by stabbing him, but then no stab wounds [zh, Southern Weekly] were found on the body.

Beijing lawyer Zhou Ze writes [zh] of the case:

除“文革”中“砸烂公检法”外,因为具体的刑事案件辩护,一次性抓捕四位辩护律师,史无前例。“广西四律师涉嫌辩护人妨碍作证案”,将有可能是改革开放以来对律师最严重的迫害事件。

Aside from the “smashing” of all police, courts and public prosecutors during the Cultural Revolution, it's historically unprecedented to see four defense lawyers simultaneously detained over their defense role in a single criminal case. Charging these four Guangxi lawyers with “obstructing testimony” could very well just be the harshest persecution seen against lawyers since China began its economic reforms.

Also from Southern Weekly reporting on the situation, it was only after local police began ignoring procedure that the All China Lawyers Association (ACLA) became involved (and has since met some resistance from local authorities) and lawyers from Beijing and elsewhere started making plans to move in.

Reportedly, all employees at the four law firms of the four detained lawyers were called in by the local Guangxi province lawyers association and told not to talk to any media or out-of-province lawyers. Judging from a few comments on Weibo, the ACLA has heard about the order.

As with Li Zhuang, the case raises the issue of “big stick” article 306 of China's Criminal Law. According to Elizabeth M. Lynch at the China Law & Policy blog, the problem lies in the fact that:

…even with a lawyer, a defendant will still have difficulty in raising the issue of a coerced confession. A defendant’s changing his testimony, even if the prior confession was in fact the result of torture, is not in the self-interest of his attorney. Article 306 of China’s Criminal Law (CL) provides criminal liability, and a prison term of up to seven years, to lawyers who entice their clients to change their testimony in opposition to the facts or to give false testimony. While the overarching purpose of the sanction – to ensure that lawyers do not encourage their clients to lie – is laudable, Article 306 has been used by police and prosecutor as a way to intimidate defense counsel from questioning the validity of any confession, even when torture is obvious.

For anyone with time to do some follow-up, six very high profile lawyers arrived in Beihai Sunday, and have been live-blogging what they encounter, with meetings with local officials set for Monday. Updates today include:

【六位律师北海行直播11】王兴律师:裴金德伤害案的四名被告人及两名证人的家属也到了宾馆。我向他们了解案件的情况,并通报律师团此行的目的及任务。

Lawyer Wang Xing: The parents of the four defendants in the murder case and those of two of the witnesses have arrived at the hotel. I've explained to them the details of the case, and briefed them on the goals and tasks of the legal team now arriving.

【六位律师北海行直播12】王兴律师:裴金德的妻子跟我聊了案件的问题,问我2003年还是哪年法律不是规定禁止刑讯逼供吗,为什么还有。我回答刑讯逼供历来是法律禁止的,可从没有消失过。

Wang Xing: Pei Jinde's wife spoke with me about some questions regarding the case, asking me why, if forcing confessions through torture has been prohibited since 2003, does it still happen. I said that the act of extorting confessions through torture has always been legally prohibited, but has also never gone away.

【六位律师北海行直播13】王兴律师:家属正在签署委托书.
【六位律师北海行直播14】陈光武、王兴、杨名跨律师和广西的律师同仁准备吃饭去了.人是铁饭是钢,不吃饭饿得慌!

Wang Xing: The parents are signing to give us power of attorney.
Lawyers Chen Guangwu, Wang Xing and Yang Mingkua and Guangxi lawyers assisting with the case are getting ready to go out and eat. If you don't eat, you starve!

【六位律师北海行直播15】朱明勇律师和张凯律师已经坐上出租车去宾馆(22时35分)

10:35 pm: Lawyers Zhu Mingyong and Zhang Kai are already in a taxi on their way to the hotel.

【六位律师北海行直播16】陈光武:各位朋友,感谢您们的关注、围观。我们一行六人已大部如期来到广西北海。刚才利用晚餐时间简单碰了头,初步拟定明天的工作计划,主要是会见四位涉案律师。有可能的话还要会见三位涉案证人和四位伤害案的被告人(22时42分)

10:42 pm: Chen Guangwu: Thank you, everyone, for all the attention you're paying to this. The six of us have all arrived more or less as scheduled here in Beihai, Guangxi. We used dinner just now to quickly get to know each other and work out a rough plan for tomorrow. Mainly we'll be meeting with the four lawyer suspects. It's possible that we'll also meet the three witnesses and the four defendants in the murder case.

【六位律师北海行直播17】对北海感觉良好,环境优美,秩序井然,社会管理成就可观。这对明天会见曾加了信心。相信地方相关部门会依法办事,及时安排会见,不会再出现推诿、刁难、阻挠的情况。另,来后了解,证人之一的潘凤和已先期释放,理由是犯罪情节轻微,不再追究刑事责任(22时46分)

Beihai is nice, great environment and orderly surroundings; the social management is noteworthy. It gives us more confidence for tomorrow's meetings. We believe the local authorities will handle the case in accordance with the law and arrange timely meetings for us instead of giving us the runaround or obstructing our work. Also, as we've discovered since our arrival, one of the witnesses has already been released, the reason being that the charges being sought have been reduced, that criminal charges are no longer being sought.

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