November 20, 2015
In December 1999 practitioners of the spiritual discipline Falun Gong were for the first time paraded into a Chinese court for a show trial, a bit of theater meant to formalize the state persecution that had begun that July. The four practitioners were denied lawyers, their cases were dealt with summarily, and the sentences were heavy: 18, 16, 12, and 7 years of imprisonment.
Now, after 16 years of grinding suppression, another mass trial is being conducted, this time in Hebei, the province surrounding Beijing. On the surface it would seem that little has changed—yet in the intervening years, layers of complexity have accumulated for the authorities: The case touches on Communist Party intrigue, dozens of rights lawyers have become involved, and central judicial authorities have dispatched observers to monitor the progress of the trial.
Han, Gao, and others on the case were there despite attempts by authorities to intimidate them. A number of the lawyers did drop the case, succumbing to pressure from Cangzhou officials and the heads of several law firms, according to Minghui, a Falun Gong website.
The lawyers took on the case in a climate of increasing violence against members of their profession. Amnesty International, a human rights NGO, published a report on Nov. 12 detailing the torture taken against lawyers recently taken captive in China.
Those who defend Falun Gong, a highly politically sensitive topic, have historically been at particular risk. The campaign against the practice is among the most severe political persecutions in China, with tens of thousands, or more, suspected of having been killed through detention, torture, and the harvesting of practitioners’ organs for profit, according to researchers.
Gao Zhisheng, one of the first Chinese rights lawyers to defend Falun Gong, was badly tortured and abused for years, and remains under house arrest. Others, such as Wang Yu and Zhang Kai, are currently in detention.