January 10, 2019
The recent license suspensions of two lawyers in Yunnan have come under public scrutiny for the strange circumstances that led to the suspensions: the lawyers were making legal arguments based on government regulations and criminal statutes, with citation to relevant parts of the national constitution, on behalf of their clients. Their plaintiffs were Falun Gong practitioners accused of “using a cult to undermine the implementation of the law.” The case sheds light on a pattern emerging in the legal profession in China – the penalization of criminal defense attorneys, who represent clients in sensitive cases, with legally dubious accusations of professional misconduct.
“Disorder in the Courtroom”
On November 2, 2018 the Hunan Changsha Ministry of Justice issued administrative penalty decisions against defense lawyers Hu Linzheng and Zeng Wu, claiming that both lawyers “denied the nationally recognized nature of a cult organization.” In December 2017, the two lawyers appeared at the Yunnan Honghe Prefecture Kaiyuan City Court to defend their clients. Hu argued there was no evidence that Falun Gong is a cult and that Article 36 of the Constitution grants Chinese citizens freedom of religion, which at least theoretically limits the government from restricting the practice of Falun Gong. Zeng was faulted for arguing in court that there are “no direct legal regulations that determine Falun Gong is a cult,” and that his client “believed that Falun Gong is protected by the freedom of religion provided in Article 36 of the Constitution.”
The administrative penalty decisions concluded that Hu and Zeng’s conduct violated Article 49, Section 8 of the Lawyers Law of the People’s Republic of China, which states that lawyers can be penalized for speech that severely “disrupts courtroom order.” The decision also cited Articles 2, 39, and 53 of the Measures on the Administration of Lawyers’ Practice, which states that lawyers must support the Communist Party and the socialist rule of law, that lawyers’ conduct cannot disrupt the normal handling of legal cases, and that violations of these measures are punishable by Article 49 of the Lawyers Law.
The Changsha Justice Bureau suspended each of the lawyers’ licenses for six months, without providing evidence that Hu and Zeng had in fact caused disorder in the courtroom. Perhaps as an indication of how baseless the decision was, the Changsha Justice Bureau indicated that leniency was provided to the two lawyers when determining the penalty because both were “sincerely remorseful and cooperated with the investigation.”