August 16, 2018
Eighty years ago, a beaten and broken man limped into a bathroom of a barracks in the Dachau concentration camp. After five years of torture at the hands of his Nazi captors, fearful that he may finally break and betray his friends, attorney Hans Litten fashioned a noose and hung himself. His “crime” was that as a lawyer in 1931, he put the Nazi party on trial for an attack on a dance hall where a left-wing workers association was meeting. Three people were killed and twenty others injured. During the course of the trial, Litten called Adolf Hitler to the stand and cross-examined him for hours. According to reports, Hitler was so shaken and enraged by the experience that Litten’s name could never be uttered in his presence. As the Nazis ascended to power, Litten turned down opportunities to flee Germany insisting that he needed to stay for his clients. In the hours following the Reichstag fire in 1933, Hitler got his revenge. Litten, at the top of Hitler’s enemies list, was arrested, imprisoned and tortured until his suicide in Dachau in 1938.
Today, it is more important than ever to keep Litten’s memory alive, when governments around the world have declared an unofficial war on lawyers who are fighting for the human rights of their clients. One of the worst offenders is China, who has faced growing international criticism for its actions against human rights attorneys and advocates in the country.
The 709 Crackdown
The repression known as the 709 Crackdown began in July 2015 when 248 human rights lawyers were detained and interrogated for work they had done on behalf of their clients. Charges were filed against a number of those detained for a variety of “crimes” under Chinese law, including “subversion,” which can carry a life sentence, and “subversion of state power,” which can result in up to 15 years in prison. The Chinese government has also suspended law licenses, engaged in enforced disappearances and filed and prosecuted arbitrary criminal cases against human rights defenders in China.
Three years on, according to Amnesty International, of the 248 individuals who were detained, nine were convicted of the “crimes” of “subverting state power,” “inciting subversion of state power” or “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Three people were given suspended sentences and one “exempted from criminal punishment” while remaining under surveillance. As of July 2018, four remain imprisoned.